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.



Strange reads du jour: Feb. 9

This might be a regular feature. Or irregular. It’s all the things I would normally share on Facebook but don’t want to do one post at a time because that would overwhelm everyone’s timelines, like my buddies who live-tweet basketball games. (Seriously, stop.)

– A pro wrestling match gone horribly wrong. One guy decided he didn’t want to play along, so the other guy (the same person who ruined Muhammad Ali’s career) beat him to a real-life pulp.

– You’d think the crew at a World Cup skeleton race wouldn’t leave a broom where a rider can hit it head-first.

– Conspiracy Theory with interesting evidence: Stevie Wonder is not blind.

– Conspiracy Theory with mountains of evidence to the contrary: The Beatles didn’t exist.

– Conspiracy Theory or just a serious error: A goalkeeper on loan from one Dutch club to another made a big whoopsie. We’ll have to see whether Ajax takes him back after the loan.

journalism, philosophy, politics

Conspiracy theories and why the intellectually insecure believe them

Brilliant photographical and philosophical takedown of moon landing conspiracy theories, including these comments that apply to “truthers” from 9/11 to Sandy Hook (and people who see media conspiracies where they don’t exist):

The urge to believe drives people to trade in part of their soul in exchange for the comfort of being a rebel. …

That step from knowing you’ve been lied to to believing that everything else is a lie is a big step. …

Once you’re forced to hypothesize whole new technologies to keep your conspiracy possible, you’ve stepped over into the realm of magic …

It’s like you need to cling to your belief system with all your might against the overwhelming evidence of your own rational mind. What’s dangerous about that is it blinds you to the real conspiracies that authorities are perpetrating on you right now, as we speak. Things that are a lot more important than whether some guys went to the moon.

I’ve always put it this way: “Never confuse cynicism with intelligence.”

Why the Moon Landings Could Have Never EVER Been Faked: The Definitive Proof.

(Some commenters took issue with his joke about removing “sapiens” from “homo sapiens,” which he addressed here.)