Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Get HideMyAss! VPN, PC Mag's Top 10 VPNs of 2016 for 55% off for a Limited Time ×
Stats

Math Says Conspiracies Are Prone To Unravel (bbc.com) 303

An anonymous reader writes: Who doesn't love a good conspiracy theory? Well, I don't — they're usually annoying daydreams from annoying people. Fortunately, an Oxford mathematician seems to feel the same way. Dr. David Grimes just published research in PLOS One establishing a formula for determining the likelihood of a failed conspiracy — in other words, how likely some of its participants are to spill the beans. There are three main factors: number of conspirators, the amount of time passed since it started, and how often we can expect conspiracies to intrinsically fail (a value he derived by studying actual conspiracies that were exposed). From the article: "He then applied his equation to four famous conspiracy theories: The belief that the Moon landing was faked, the belief that climate change is a fraud, the belief that vaccines cause autism, and the belief that pharmaceutical companies have suppressed a cure for cancer. Dr. Grimes's analysis suggests that if these four conspiracies were real, most are very likely to have been revealed as such by now. Specifically, the Moon landing 'hoax' would have been revealed in 3.7 years, the climate change 'fraud' in 3.7 to 26.8 years, the vaccine-autism 'conspiracy' in 3.2 to 34.8 years, and the cancer 'conspiracy' in 3.2 years."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Math Says Conspiracies Are Prone To Unravel

Comments Filter:
  • and deny its effects
    • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @09:15PM (#51378531) Homepage Journal

      One problem with this analysis is that it doesn't take into account *successful* conspiracies.

      Suppose there are conspiracies which succeeded completely - in that the public was defrauded, suspected nothing, and life went on as normal.

      If we are using past performance to predict future trends, shouldn't those conspiracies be counted? There's no realistic way to account for or even detect them.

      Take for example the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon.

      During that campaign, [incumbent president] Johnson was negotiating with Vietnam [politico.com] to bring an end to the Vietnam war.

      Nixon though that this action would ruin his chances of being elected, so he contacted the Vietnamese government and said that if they obstructed talks, they'd get a better deal when he was elected.

      (An example of an American interfering with the political process, prolonging a war for 7 more years, with enforced conscription, and causing the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.)

      This action was known to Nixon's campaign manager (Mitchell) and several aides. Johnson knew about it (a tape in the Johnson presidential library has Johnson denouncing Nixon for “treason”)

      Neither side wanted to push the issue, so it was dropped.

      This was a conspiracy, involved several dozen people (including FBI agents), and was monstrously important at the time. It took 50 years for the documents to be released describing the situation. Johnson's tape was released in 2008, and some other files are still hidden.

      I don't have a lot of faith in this paper - it doesn't take into account conspiracies that actually succeed.

      • by sg_oneill ( 159032 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @09:21PM (#51378571)

        It *does* account for those. The probability is based on how many people would have to be in on it. The moonlanding hoax and the "climate change is a hoax" conspiracy theories require incredibly large numbers of people to be involved and thus would have been quickly discovered, but since theres no evidence either of them are a hoax and the time scale involved, we can thus conclude theres no conspiracy. The nixon vietnam talks conspiracy however involved a small number of conspirators, and this greatly increases the likelihood of a conspiracy succeeding.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          No the problem is it uses failed conspiracies as its baseline for calculations. To actually be able to come up with a mathematical model you need to look at the conspiracies that succeeded and try to determine the mathematical factors that lead to that success. all he is modeled is one aspect that he knows leads to failure.
        • by bloodhawk ( 813939 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @09:56PM (#51378787)
          I don't think it accounts for those at all as it CAN'T. The fact is 99% of conspiracies could be wildly successful, but because they are successful we won't know or it could be every one of them has eventually failed, he is working from incomplete data, worse he is working from a heavily biased section of the data (i.e. data that leant towards failure). we don't know the data behind what leads to a successful conspiracy only what leads to failed ones. It also doesn't take into account that most people don't tend to believe people that come out about conspiracies. For a conspiracy to fail not only must it be leaked but it needs to be believed by the public. Someone could come out today and say he was the man on the grassy knoll and fired the fatal bullet (and be telling the truth), unless he had concrete proof all it would take is one agency saying he is disturbed or making it up and the conspiracy continues.
          • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @10:53PM (#51379129) Journal

            I don't think it accounts for those at all as it CAN'T. The fact is 99% of conspiracies could be wildly successful, but because they are successful we won't know or it could be every one of them has eventually failed, he is working from incomplete data, worse he is working from a heavily biased section of the data (i.e. data that leant towards failure). we don't know the data behind what leads to a successful conspiracy only what leads to failed ones.

            This is just a guess here, but it sounds like the study didn't really examine whether or not a conspiracy "worked" or not, but whether a conspiracy unraveled. And by unraveled, I assume he means that people found out about it. So even Nixon's conspiracy to keep the War in Vietnam going until he could be elected president eventually unraveled because we've found out about it and we know it happened.

            So, if we start from an adjusted definition of conspiracy that means "conspiracies that managed to be kept hidden", the study makes a lot more sense. The more people you get involved, the more likely it is to unravel because human beings are notoriously bad at keeping secrets in groups. Eventually, somebody tells a wife or friend or spills the beans at the bar.

            • So, if we start from an adjusted definition of conspiracy that means "conspiracies that managed to be kept hidden", the study makes a lot more sense.

              My whole point is these are NOT conspiracies that they managed to keep hidden, they were eventually revealed, even if 25 years or more later. He has no data or knowledge of how many remained secret indefinitely nor is there any way to obtain that information. So at best he is working from a flawed data set that has to make a load of assumptions and guesses.

      • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

        well, if 50%+ are in a conspiracy, it's no longer a conspiracy now is it..

        as with moon landing, there's plenty of people who claim that they're spilling the beans on it. as is with area 51 having ufos and all that.

        as to your example, well, it took 50 years and involved a lot less people - and on the other hand, might have had very little effect on the whole war itself anyways.

  • by BarbaraHudson ( 3785311 ) <barbarahudsononl ... Nom minus author> on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @08:37PM (#51378307) Journal
    Its a fake conspiracy theory when my nephew believes it. 100% accuracy within 5 seconds.
    • by Longjmp ( 632577 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @09:51PM (#51378741)

      Its a fake conspiracy theory when my nephew believes it. 100% accuracy within 5 seconds.

      Hm. "5, Insightful". Seems like quite a few slashdotters know your nephew.
      However, a "5, Interesting" would mean a bunch of slashdotters would like to know your nephew.

      Don't know which scares me more ;-)

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @08:44PM (#51378343) Journal
    Pick your motivation. Protection of family, life-changing wealth, to obtain a cure for a disease-ridden child, or even, no problem, I'm a sociopath....Think of it like this: if you had to do a crime, how many people would you involve unnecessarily?

    That's right, a big fat zero. You know who keeps a secret? Of course not, that person has never told you anything.

    A conspiracy's success is diminished inversely proportionate to the number of its' participants and the time of execution.

  • by IWantMoreSpamPlease ( 571972 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @08:45PM (#51378351) Homepage Journal

    Of course, that's what THEY want you to believe!
    You guys ain't foolin' anyone, I know the truth!

  • by Derekloffin ( 741455 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @08:52PM (#51378387)
    The crucial value he is using how often do conspiracies fail, but then uses failed ones to measure the length of time. Isn't that kinda like asking how long until your car explodes, and only looking at cars that explode as your data. On top of that, looks like he is using only a same size of 3 to determine this metric making it even more questionable. While I applaud the effort, this doesn't seem to convincing.
    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      How do you think insurance companies work out premiums? Probability of a flood based on how many times it flooded. What else would you use? The number of times you stubbed your toe?
  • Not that I think any of those conspiracies are real. But I would have thought another critical factor would be the consequences for those involved. i.e. do they have threats to themselves or family hanging over their silence.
  • What about the one where various three letter agencies are snooping on all of your communications. Who would believe that?

    • And this was exactly one of the existing exposed conspiracies that was used to develop the model. Specifically the PRISM program by the NSA.

      • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

        And this was exactly one of the existing exposed conspiracies that was used to develop the model. Specifically the PRISM program by the NSA.

        People *used* to say it was all about people wearing tin foil hats. It turned out that if you actually know the truth and the truth hurts people, then they would prefer to stay ignorant and happy.

    • Proof of concept for the cure of cancer has been patented more than 30 years ago, in 1983.

      While many of the readers here are techies, I am bringing your attention to the Cabilly patents https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] that are key to some of the existing effective FDA approved cancer medications (with the combo treatment cost of $250K or so). If you do not believe, please spend some time researching or ask your friend patent lawyer of biochemistry scientist to comment on Cabilly patents.

      Bottom line is tha

    • I do not think that any sane person questions landing itself. The world, including arch-competitors Soviets, were monitoring and spying the process. Moreover, the landing vehicle at the first landing location has been photographed. You can't fake the fact of that kind of magnitude.

      However there is a reasonable suspicion that the footage of the landing is .... well... a bit of a stretch, and those pesky conspiracy theorists brought dozens of details that did not make sense. Lastly, there is this Stanley Kub

  • Customs like the thin blue line or country club membership committees or lynching hoods do perpetuate for decades.
  • by Crash McBang ( 551190 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @08:54PM (#51378407)
    Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.
  • Clearly he's in on it. He's just telling us what they want us to believe.

  • Conspiracy theories are so simple.... it would be so much easier. I think I could feel more hopeful as a conspiracy theorist. Because then its just a few bad apples. Sure, a few bad apples do spoil the whole bunch..... but you can toss out a whole bunch, you can scrap a whole years apple harvest.... if you just buck up, check those apples, and don't keep the bad ones.

    But, I don't see that. Conspiracies are hard. They do tend to unravel. They only work when of very short duration and scope, when the people i

  • Half Conspiracies (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TranquilVoid ( 2444228 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @08:58PM (#51378437)

    The moon landing and cancer-cure suppression would be actual conspiracies, but climate change and vaccine-caused autism are less thought to be malicious conspiracies and more incorrect group-think*. There is no spilling the beans to be done.

    * Yes there are those who claim genuine conspiracies, but by far the vast majority of people who, say, believe climate change is not man-made nor catastrophic think it is incorrect science.

    • I don't really see cancer-cure suppression as a conspiracy either. If a pharmaceutical company finds a cure for cancer, and decides it would hurt their bottom line to release it, what do you call that? That's just capitalism doing what it's supposed to do.
      • If a pharmaceutical company finds a cure for cancer, and decides it would hurt their bottom line to release it, what do you call that?

        Time to file their business folk, because a cure for cancer is so insanely valuable that they'd be idiots not to pursue it.

    • Yes there are those who claim genuine conspiracies, but by far the vast majority of people who, say, believe climate change is not man-made nor catastrophic think it is incorrect science.

      Science is generally pretty self correcting, if you make a mistake someone will eventually find out. Climate Change was discovered over 150 years ago: it's kinda hard to believe that nobody has checked that work in all that time. If you were a climate contrarian, wouldn't the first thing you do be to check experimentally to see if CO2 is a greenhouse gas?

      If the accepted science is actually wrong, then the only way that could be not generally known would be if there was a massive, enduring conspiracy suppre

  • His model is way too weak.

    We further assume that a leak of information from any conspirator is sufficient to expose the conspiracy and render it redundant

    So any single person acting alone, of any stature in society, can bust open a conspiracy and get it on CNN?

    The problems with this model are many:

    1. It ignores authority and credibility of the leaker

    2. It ignores the reach of the leaker

    3. It does not define when a conspiracy theory has been proven (e.g. a reasonable definition is whether a specified percentage of the population understand the conspiracy to be true)

    For example, to use one of the examples of a true conspiracy the author used, the NSA:

    The National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM affair—The staggering extent of spying by the NSA and its allies on civilian internet users was exposed by contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

    That's just factually wrong. It was substantially exposed on PBS [pbs.org] in 2007. Why am I quoting PBS? Because I know it is perceived as an authoritative source. Why do most people not know about this? Because PBS lacks the reach.

    Both authoratativeness and reach are required to expose a conspiracy. And once these two elements are added into the model, then one is forced to accept a non-trivial definition of conspiracy-proven-true by setting a threshold of population who believes (and not simply saying one leaker implies the whole world instantaneously and fully believes).

  • by AnotherBlackHat ( 265897 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @09:06PM (#51378477) Homepage

    Seems like severe selection bias - not one of the examples has yet to reveal a conspiracy.

    How well does the theory predict conspiracies that have already been revealed?
    For example, the Manhattan project involved hundreds of people, yet remained secret for years, is that what this theory suggests would have happened?

    • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @11:30PM (#51379311)

      For example, the Manhattan project involved hundreds of people, yet remained secret for years, is that what this theory suggests would have happened?

      I can't speak to the validity of the mathematical model here, but it seems the Manhattan Project might be distinguished in a number of ways.

      (1) The "conspiracies" in TFA are mostly things that many people would view as against "public interest." Meanwhile, the Manhattan Project was doing something that was actually trying to win a war, which average Americans knew was already killing millions of them. Thus, I think it would be easier to appeal to people's patriotism to keep the Manhattan Project secret even if more people did find out or someone was thinking of "talking." The very word "conspiracy" implies something negative and nefarious going on; while some people nowadays consider the Manhattan Project to have unleashed "evil" I suppose, the general negative impact at the time was on enemies who were intent on killing Americans -- so I don't know that most people would have considered it a net benefit to release that information to the public, where it could more easily get in the hands of enemies and put Americans at a disadvantage in the war if the enemy developed weapons faster.

      (2) It was a different time. Not just because of the war. This was the era when journalists voluntarily kept the secret that FDR was basically confined to a wheelchair. Could you imagine something like that being kept secret today? The amount of technology, surveillance, electronic communications, etc. that EVERYONE has access to (and anything anyone was trying to keep secret would be subject to a barrage of), not to mention the lack of the kind of ethical choices that journalists of that time made... well, it's just a different world today.

      (3) Probably only a few dozen people knew of the full scope of the Manhattan project, and probably only a few hundred had any real clue that it even had to do with atoms. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed doing construction, etc., but they had no clue what was going on, and they couldn't figure it out from the little pieces they knew and observed personally. And even if they started to figure something out, see (1) and (2) above.

      (4) The Manhattan Project hit a "big reveal" when the bombs were dropped on Japan. Probably a few hundred more people who didn't really "get" what was going on figured something out when they heard that news. And more people likely started putting the pieces together then. And it was in that same year that the government started revealing stuff about the project. Compare that to something like the Moon Landings. You could imaging thousands of construction workers and whatever involved in setting those up to create a hoax, and maybe they could segregate people similarly to avoid any one person having "all the pieces." But then the day comes in 1969 when it's broadcast around the globe, and I bet lots of people start putting the pieces together. Same thing for the other conspiracies in TFA -- these are all publicly disclosed matters where the "official" story is different from the supposed "conspiracy" story. With the Manhattan Project, there often was really no major "official" story -- in fact, you have stories about managers from then who were tasked with keeping workers happy when no one knew anything (including the managers). If anything, the danger of the Manhattan Project was that too many people thought it was worthless or nonsense -- since they had no clue what the work was for. There's not the same tension in explanations or the feeling of "deception" that would tend to lead to "leaks."

      Oh, and besides all of this, TFS says these conspiracies would unravel in a MINIMUM of 3-4 years (and perhaps as long as decades). While the Manhattan Project got started in 1939, it didn't really get going in force until around 1942, and it was revealed in 1945. So, it's not like the "secret" phase of the project lasted even much longer than the MINIMUM predicted by this model.

      • by crow ( 16139 )

        (2) above isn't that different today. The media cooperates with the White House to almost never say anything about our President smoking. It's not really a secret, but it's also something that is hardly ever mentioned.

      • Oh, and besides all of this, TFS says these conspiracies would unravel in a MINIMUM of 3-4 years (and perhaps as long as decades). While the Manhattan Project got started in 1939, it didn't really get going in force until around 1942, and it was revealed in 1945. So, it's not like the "secret" phase of the project lasted even much longer than the MINIMUM predicted by this model.

        What you say is true, but...

        On the other hand the secrets produced by the secret program themselves remained secret (at least to th

  • Useful too. Except for convincing conspiracy theorists.

    A good conspiracy theory is a belief, not a hypothesis.

    See e.g. the "Flat earth" believers ("The earth is flat, you see, but "da gubbamint" hushes it up (with truly amazing efficiency, across several decades)).

    And the "rational Pi" crowd ("The number Pi can is a rational number, not an irrational one, but established mathematicians simply refuse to take any proofs to the contrary seriously and conspire against anyone who tries to put such theories

  • by WaffleMonster ( 969671 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @10:13PM (#51378917)

    What ticks me off more than crazy theories are instances of skeptics invoking many of the same kinds of errors in judgments into debunking conspiracies as was originally required to invent them in the first place.

    All I ask if you feel the need to waste your time debunking a conspiracy theory at least do so with evidence and sound reasoning.

    In this case making judgments based on statistical inferences of who would "spill the beans" is pretty lame. First off this kind of analysis does nothing to directly address the underlying assertions made by conspiracy theorist. Who is likely to "talk" is a variable based on conspiracy specific human factors I very much doubt can be captured in a formula. Most importantly believers are not going to be swayed by models from "establishment" mathematicians they neither understand or are likely to be willing to take the time to understand.

    If someone makes a non-falsifiable claim going further than demonstrating the claim cannot be falsified is unnecessary and counterproductive. In my view the best way to rescue people from conspiracies is to trick them into discovering for themselves the errors in their positions.

  • by Time_Ngler ( 564671 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @10:16PM (#51378931)
    Want a conspiracy that has succeeded after over 70 years? Believe that carrots are good for your eyes? Nope, this was a rumor spread by Britain's air ministry to prevent the Russians from finding out about their new radar system. And yet a lot of people still believe that carrots are good for your eyes to this day.

    How about UFO's? The CIA spread disinformation about UFO's in the 1950's and 1960's to hide their experimental aircraft program. Another example of a conspiracy that took hold with the general public and survived to this day.

    It's not amount of time since the event occurred, or the number of people involved, it's the cover story that makes the conspiracy succeed or fail.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08... [nytimes.com]
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/... [smithsonianmag.com]

    • So, what you're saying is, for decades people have encouraged their children to eat more carrots? Oh, that horrible British government! Everything Obama said about them is true!
      • I'm saying it's a conspiracy to get the public to believe something that is untrue that many people have known about and has been successful for the better part of a century, which refutes the article's presupposition that this formula can predict whether a conspiracy is probable or not.

        I didn't say it was good or bad.

    • Or that time the America and Canada performed dangerous and torturous medical experimentation on non-consenting citizens. A practice the utilised hundreds of doctors and nurses spanning dozens and dozens of institutions, not to mention the thousands of unwitting participants. And we did not find out until the government declassified the documents detailing the practice decades latter. All you need to do is read some declassified federal documents to know that large, complicated, crazy, conspiracies are carr

  • It's the moon landing. An impossible conspiracy because of the number of people involved. The rest though are just exaggerated positions. Climate change is a fraud not because the scientists are conspiring to convince us of something that is not real, but because Jesus would never let that happen so the scientists are just mistaken. See how that works?

    A good conspiracy theory, like "911 inside job", can be pulled off with just a few guys. But maybe then it's no longer a conspiracy?
    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      actually the 911 inside job as shown on some crappy "documentaries" would involve tens of thousands of engineers who say those documentaries are full of bullshit.. but those engineers are saying that the inside job theory uses bullshit for proof.

  • by SoftwareArtist ( 1472499 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2016 @10:30PM (#51379027)

    He's totally wrong in assuming you need secrecy to maintain a conspiracy. Everyone knows that global warming is a hoax and that vaccines are harmful. They've both been revealed many times. You can find information about them all over the internet. But everyone keeps believing the conspirators lies anyway. You don't need secrecy, you just need most people to be really gullible and believe whatever they read, instead of questioning it and checking the facts. You know, the way any smart conspiracy theorist would do.

    (In case you can't tell, yes I'm being sarcastic here. But I'm also being serious: you can't cite the difficulty of keeping a secret as an argument against a belief that, according to its adherents, isn't secret anymore.)

  • Cryptome has an interesting list https://cryptome.org/2013-info... [cryptome.org]
    Note the backgrounds to Daniel Ellsberg, Sibel Edmonds, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, J. Kirk Wiebe, William Binney, Edward Snowden.

    As to the ".. rendering such Byzantine cover-ups far more likely to fail."
    What has failed for the CIA?
    United States President's Commission on CIA Activities within the United States [wikipedia.org] in the mid 1970's went fine even after the MKUltra news https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
    Doctors and medics get to stay in th
  • There are three main factors: number of conspirators, the amount of time passed since it started, and how often we can expect conspiracies to intrinsically fail (a value he derived by studying actual conspiracies that were exposed).

    I don't see how this analysis could possibly be conservative as conservative as the author believes. He estimates a lower bound on a failure parameter based on exposed conspiracies, except this can't possibly be convincing if one believes there exist long-term conspiracies that h

  • Conveniently, the algorithm has been tweaked so that none of these predicted time periods are in the past. Now all we have to do is wait 4 years to see if any of the theories are true!

  • The public is notoriously bad at math. They can't check Dr. Grimes work. He is in on them (ALL of the conspiracies!)

    He is just trying to placate us.

    He might as well have said; "There are no conspiracies, because, MATH! Bam!!!"
  • Math like this is dumb because it's based on assumptions in human affairs that are non-repeatable. It makes a bunch of other grounded assumptions too.
  • Even annoying people deserve daydreams!

  • I didn't need math to tell me that conspiracies are prone to unravel, after all, doesn't the old saying go "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
  • nobody yet has mentioned the darth jar jar conspiracy. when will this one be revealed to be confirmed? what does the math say on that?

  • I think this paper is a conspiracy to make you think conspiracies don't exist or are prone to unravel.

Retirement means that when someone says "Have a nice day", you actually have a shot at it.

Working...