Oxford Professor David Robert Grimes has proposed an equation for the likelihood of the validity of a conspiracy theory based on its survivability rate using several factors including the extent of time required for a cover-up, the amount of people necessarily involved, the likelihood of whistle-blowing or accidental leak, and how much upkeep would be required to maintain the cover-up as it relates to media interest and other factors.
He focuses on four conspiracy theories requiring cover-ups: faked moon landing; that climate climate change is a fraud; the vaccine-autism connection, and that pharmaceutical companies are suppressing cancer cures.
To estimate the chances that any one person would reveal secret activities, Grimes looked at three actual leaked conspiracies: the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, which was brought to light in 2013 by NSA contractor Edward Snowden; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which a then-new treatment of penicillin was withheld from infected participants in the experiment, finally exposed by Peter Buxtun in 1972 ; and the pseudoscientific forensic tests of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that resulted in innocent men being held or even executed for crimes they didn’t commit. It took six years, 25 years and six years for the three conspiracies to be exposed, respectively. With those numbers, he found the odds of a conspiracy-ending leak, whether accidental or deliberate, could be as low as around 4 in 1 million. [The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted]
Grimes then calculated the potential success of the four conspiracies that continue to garner support. He used the best-case scenario for the conspirators, where the fewest number of people are involved who could leak such undercover machinations. The moon landing had an advantage over the other three scenarios because it could’ve potentially occurred without having to bring in new conspirators to preserve the hoax — this means the only people who are keeping secrets die off over time. Using peak NASA employment numbers from 1965 (411,000 people), and allowing for the fact that those involved would eventually die, the moon hoax still lasts less than four years, according to Grimes’ calculations. In the end, Grimes finds that if any more than 650 people were involved in creating the moon hoax and keeping it a secret, the cat would be out of the bag.
Using the same equation but modifying it to consider the need for added conspirators, the “lie” of climate change would last nearly 27 years if only scientists were involved in the cover-up, but under four years if scientific bodies were to take part. The vaccination conspiracy makes it to almost 35 years if it’s confined to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, but is revealed in three years and two months if drug companies are co-conspirators. The suppression of a cancer cure — maintained by Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, Merck and Co., Johnson and Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca — fails after around three years and three months as well.
Naturally, people want his head and have tried to get him fired.