If moon landing conspiracy was true, we’d know by now, says maths formula

27 Jan 2016

In news that is unlikely to please conspiracy theorists, a physicist has revealed a formula that he says reveals how long some of the most popular conspiracy theories would last without the truth being revealed.

While the moon landing conspiracy suggesting that we never landed on the moon is one of the most famous conspiracy theories, the internet is awash with similar theories ranging from 9/11 being orchestrated by the US government to vaccines being linked to autism in children.

All of which are, obviously, vehemently denied by those who are accused of covering up the truth, but this denial in the mind of a conspiracy theorist only cements their belief that a huge plot to hide the truth is the real reality.

But how long could a piece of incredible information be kept quiet from the public? Well, according to a new paper published in Plos One by Dr David Grimes from Oxford University, maths has the answer.

Looking at real conspiracies

According to the BBC, Grimes posed a solution by finding out three facets of information: how many people were involved in the conspiracy, how much time has passed since the initial event, and the likelihood that a conspiracy attached to it would fail, the first two elements being based on a model called the Poisson distribution model.

The final element, however, required Grimes to look at genuine conspiracies that remained hidden for a number of years, specifically Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM programme, the purposeful exposure and withholding of treatment of syphilis for African-Americans as part of the Tuskegee experiment and the FBI scandal involving Dr Frederic Whitehurst.

The bigger the conspiracy theory, the quicker it falls

Based off all the figures from these bona fide conspiracy theories, Grimes calculated that, with an individual or very small group, the likelihood of a conspiracy failing would be as low as four in 1m.

However, when applied to a greater number of people, the odds become much lower.

In the moon landing conspiracy’s case, the 411,000 NASA employees in 1969 who would have been involved would have seen a conspiracy last around 3.7 years.

When applied to other famous examples, the likelihood of fraudulent climate change statistics being hidden would have lasted at a maximum of 26.8 years, while proof that there’s a link between autism and vaccines would last at most a little longer at 34.8 years, but both equally have a possibility of as little as three or four years.

Speaking of his paper, Dr Grimes knows he’s fighting an uphill battle to prove conspiracy theorists are wrong in most cases: “While I think it’s difficult to impossible to sway those with a conviction … I would hope this paper is useful to those more in the middle ground who might wonder whether scientists could perpetuate a hoax or not.”

NASA astronaut on the moon image via RV1864/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic