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.