The math that crushes conspiracy theories

I recently wrote a piece for The Guardian on the rebirth of Flat Earth-ism. The piece did really well — the “Shares” counter on the story now has reset after going well into the multiple thousands.

Flat Earth theory is dependent on a conspiracy to hide the truth. That’s no surprise to its adherents, many of whom dabble in other conspiracy theories as well.

So I was interested in this mathematical study on conspiracy theories and how many people can keep such secrets:

For a plot to last five years, the maximum number of plotters turned out to be 2,521. To keep a scheme operating undetected for more than a decade, fewer than 1,000 people could be involved, while a century-long deception had to include fewer than 125 collaborators.

Applying the technique to four real-life scenarios showed that had the moon landings been a hoax – involving an estimated 411,000 people who worked at Nasa – it would have been found out in three years and eight months.

I’ve got a few questions — for one thing, plenty of people who “worked at Nasa” didn’t have to be in on the secret. But in general, the study does show how unlikely it is that a big secret can be kept.

Dana Carvey already covered this territory pretty well on a smaller scale, questioning the “O.J. was framed” theory:

So the question for the Flat Earth movement really isn’t a battle of geometry among people who haven’t taken geometry in a few decades. The question is whether the following people have the ability (and the motive) to keep a secret:

  • Everyone at NASA and every other space agency in the world
  • All airline pilots and others in the aviation industry who fly in the Southern Hemisphere
  • Everyone who has ever been to the South Pole
  • Anyone who takes a boat anywhere near Antarctica (Granted, Whale Wars would be more interesting if everyone ran out of fuel)
  • Michael Palin

And so on.

The “why?” and “how?” of that conspiracy would be mind-boggling. I’d love to hear the explanation.



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