The Earth isn’t Flat: The Science of Waiting Out Conspiracy Theories
The Twittersphere was treated to a particularly strange dose of conspiracy theory nuttiness this week when rapper B.oB. went head-to-head with famed scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson over whether or not the earth is flat. Fellow Law Streeter Alexis Evans published an excellent rundown of the bizarre feud on Tuesday, but it got me thinking: why do so many seemingly insane conspiracy theories exist? After all, we all know that the earth is round, and vaccines don’t cause autism, and that Elvis Presley is probably dead. But then, some conspiracy theories do kind of turn out to true–take, for example, the NSA spying on Americans. So, how do we separate the crazy from the not-so-crazy? Turns out University of Oxford postdoctoral research associate David Robert Grimes has figured out a way, by determining how long it would take conspiracy theories to be debunked.
Grimes essentially set out to answer a simple question: how long would it take for the truth to come out about a conspiracy theory? In order to test the equation he developed, Grimes looked at three conspiracy theories that have turned out to be true, and compared them to four other long-standing theories, in an attempt to figure out how long it would have taken those theories to be debunked, whether intentionally or accidentally.
The three “true” conspiracy theories that Grimes looked at were:
- The NSA’s spying program, which whistle-blower Edward Snowden released information about in 2013.
- The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a horrifying “clinical study” that involved researchers essentially experimenting on and withholding treatment from 600 African-American male participants.
- The FBI’s use of questionable techniques and pseudo-science in sworn testimony, particularly involving the FBI’s microscopic hair comparison unit, that led to hundreds of wrongful convictions.
According to Grimes, these conspiracy theories were exposed in six years, 25 years, and six years respectively. Grimes’ equation takes into account conditions like how many people would have to be involved in each coverup and the amount of effort the coverups would require. So he was able to mathematically calculate how long it should take a secret to be exposed–whether from a whistle-blower’s actions or accidentally.
Using that calculation, he was able to determine how long it would take four popular conspiracy theories to have been debunked:
- NASA faking the moon landing would have been uncovered in four years.
- Climate change, if only concealed by climate scientists, would have taken 27 years to be debunked. But, if you involved scientific bodies and agencies, the possible cover up time drops to under four years.
- The conspiracy theory that vaccines aren’t safe would take just over three years if drug companies were involved, but much longer (35 years) if it was limited to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
- If pharmaceutical companies knew how to cure cancer but were withholding those cures from the public, we would have found out in a little over three years.
According to Think Progress’s Lauren C. Williams:
For a conspiracy to last five years, just over 2,500 people could actively know the truth before it’s revealed. Fewer than 1,000 people can know about it to keep the conspiracy alive for 10 years, and only 125 people could be involved to keep a conspiracy going for a century, the study found.
So, is the world flat? Well, we already know it’s not, but now here’s proof that if it is, it defies what science tells us in more ways than one.