How to tell if conspiracy theories are real

David Robert Grimes, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oxford who studies cancer, is familiar with conspiracy theorists. His mainstream writing for the likes of The Guardian and BBC News has included controversial topics that lend themselves to conspiracies, including homosexuality, climate change and water fluoridation.

“The charge that there is a scientific conspiracy afoot is a common one,” said Grimes, in an email interview with Live Science, “and almost inevitably those making these charges will descend into accusing one of shilling or being an agent of some malignant entity…”

For this new study, Grimes considered four common conspiracy beliefs: that NASA faked the 1969 moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission, that human-caused climate change isn’t real, that vaccines are unsafe, and that pharmaceutical companies are hiding cancer cures from the public. He created an equation to figure out how long these four cover-ups would likely last (if indeed they were cover-ups), given how many people are involved, the likelihood of leaks from the inside (whether on purpose or by accident), and how much upkeep would be required to keep everything under wraps.

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…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.

Grimes is not idealistic about the impact of his study

“I think true believers will never change their views; in the words of Leon Festinger, ‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,'” he said. “While these people are ideologically deeply invested in a given narrative, I would hope that this paper might help the more rational people who have maybe heard some claims and want to ascertain if they’re probable or not.”

His main concern is the myths and conspiracies that could cause serious harm, such as climate change doubters and the anti-vaccination movement. As more people forgo vaccinations for their kids, so-called herd immunity — in which large numbers of people with immunity from a disease can shield smalls numbers of people who are not immune because outbreaks are unlikely — collapses. With this work Grimes is attempting to chip away at the less confident conspiracists and move them toward more science-based beliefs.

There still is no patch for stupidity.

24 thoughts on “How to tell if conspiracy theories are real

  1. green says:

    Perhaps 3 cases of conspiracy is not a viable basis on which to write a phd? Bayes would be turning in his grave at the quality of this work.
    And in answer to Leon Festinger who boldly states “I think true believers will never change their views….. A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’” ditto a traditionalist/nationalist whose job relies on conformity.
    Did i hear that the earth was created only 4,600 years ago? Best we don’t waste time investigating the facts eh?

    • keaneo says:

      “Traditionalist/nationalist…conformity”? Might count as sophistry if I could figure out what it has to do with maths or postdoc research.

        • keaneo says:

          Read the bloody article. This is not a ph.d thesis – simply a mathematical exercise by a postdoc examining probabilities. 4 – not 3 – BTW. Sloppy reading, dude – if less than sophistry.

    • Goad says:

      Conspiracy theories are always conservative by nature and subject to being dismissed because they don’t offer an alternative assessment of events but instead labor after the fact to fit events into a pessimistic reading of history. Nevertheless conspiracists have always drawn their energy from an absence of observable conspirators in the real world, and as a result being enabled to be more boldly endow them with all sorts of magical powers in an imaginary or invisible realm.

  2. ALL TRUE, YES!! says:

    ☑ Jeb Bush’s Trump-Clinton conspiracy theory: here’s the evidence
    ☑ Marco Rubio and Microsoft stole Trump votes in Iowa
    ☑ “Iowa Caucus 2016 Conspiracies: 4 Theories Of What Happened With Clinton-Sanders Vote” – or The Top five Conspiracy Theories from the Iowa Caucuses
    ☑ America’s public school system was founded by “a member of the American Communist Party” according to Sen. Ted Cruz’s father
    ☑ “A Guide to Every Hillary Clinton Conspiracy”
    ☑ Obama will take over the United Nations before revealing he’s the Antichrist according to former Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann
    ☑ Nostradamus prophesied “the one called bush” (L’arbuste) would pay $5,200 per vote to come in 6th in Iowa.

    • From the head it stinks says:

      Des Moines Register: “Something smells in the Democratic Party” “Once again the world is laughing at Iowa. Late-night comedians and social media mavens are having a field day with jokes about missing caucusgoers and coin flips. That’s fine. We can take ribbing over our quirky process. But what we can’t stomach is even the whiff of impropriety or error.
      What happened Monday night at the Democratic caucuses was a debacle, period. Democracy, particularly at the local party level, can be slow, messy and obscure. But the refusal to undergo scrutiny or allow for an appeal reeks of autocracy.
      The Iowa Democratic Party must act quickly to assure the accuracy of the caucus results, beyond a shadow of a doubt. …we need answers to what happened Monday night. The future of the first-in-the-nation caucuses demands it.”

  3. Jerry Fletcher says:

    “High cognitive ability not a safeguard from conspiracies, paranormal beliefs” (University of Illinois at Chicago) “In an article published online and in the February 2018 issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Tomas Ståhl reports on two studies that examined why some people are inclined to believe in various conspiracies and paranormal phenomena.”
    See also “Epistemic rationality: Skepticism toward unfounded beliefs requires sufficient cognitive ability and motivation to be rational”
    “Epistemic rationality is that part of rationality which involves achieving accurate beliefs about the world. It involves updating on receiving new evidence, mitigating cognitive biases, and examining why you believe what you believe. It can be seen as a form of instrumental rationality in which knowledge and truth are goals in themselves, whereas in other forms of instrumental rationality, knowledge and truth are only potential aids to achieving goals. Someone practicing instrumental rationality might even find falsehood useful.”

  4. Brainwash says:

    “YouTube’s app specifically for children is meant to filter out adult content and provide a “world of learning and fun,” but Business Insider found that YouTube Kids featured many conspiracy theory videos which make claims that the world is flat, that the moon landing was faked, and that the planet is ruled by reptile-human hybrids.” (Business Insider)

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