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Oxford claims on conspiracy theories are partly sensible, partly junk

RT and hundreds of other sources talk about the work by an Oxford physics postdoc, David Grimes:

On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs (PLOS, PDF)
The basic claim of the work is something I complete share – and Grimes could have very well gotten it from this blog, e.g. some considerations here including "So I would think that a famous man probably has a smaller chance to organize something that remains completely secret than an ordinary man." The claim is
Conspiracy theories need to assume that lots of people are able to keep secret for a long time but that ain't so.
I think that this is really the main correct mechanism that shows why many true conspiracy theories are implausible. It is the most effective single tool to disfavor conspiracy theories – but it's by far from being the only tool or the tool relevant in all situations. In most cases, you simply have to look at the specific details of a particular conspiracy theory and its "mainstream alternatives".




Grimes adds some trivial mathematical modeling on top of the idea above – involving the number of people who reveal the secret from moral reasons or by a mistake, the rate at which they're dying away, and so on. This is not very important because you may quickly estimate how it works, anyway.




So he derives relationships like "a secret known by 125 people only may last for a century", "a secret known by 2,500 people may last for five years", and so on. Because NASA had 400,000+ employees in 1969, and "similarly", 400,000 people are involved in the climate change business, and 20,000 WHO+U.S.CDC (plus 700,000 in Big Pharma) would know about vaccination risks, and 700,000+ would know about a coverup for a cure for cancer, all these conspiracy theories are probably wrong (they would be leaked much more quickly than in 5 years).

Now, these are quite sloppy statements, indeed. You know that my certainty that climate alarmism is rubbish is the only one among these examples where I am clearly enough taking the opposite position than this guy. But even when I take the same position, I know that his application of the mathematics is just extremely problematic if not brutally wrong.



Related to space research: 30 years ago, on January 28th, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and 7 crew member died. Reagan said that they touched the face of God and picked Feynman as a member of the commission. Feynman showed a problem with the O-rings – and with the culture in which P.R. trumps reality. I guess that the comments about the face of God had to be a bit counterintuitive for Feynman. At those times, it was just P.R. that was trumping reality; these days, it's a full-fledged P.C. But Nature can't be fooled. Feynman's testimony took place on February 11th, exactly 30 years before the 2016 press conference discovering the gravitational waves (as those of us who know both the past and the future can say).

Moonlanding: it was easier than to fake it

Let's start with the staged moonlanding theory, perhaps the most "canonical" example of a conspiracy theory in the world. The U.S. astronauts have never landed on the Moon. The footage was filmed by some U.S. filmmakers in Nevada and so on. I think that the people believing these things are borderline nuts. But the main reason for me isn't the "people can't keep secrets" assumption.

The main reason why I am confident that all these believers in fake moonlanding are borderline insane is that I know that it's not that difficult to send people to the Moon. To leave the Earth's gravity, you just need slightly better rockets than those used in the Second World War. The Earth's gravity reaches to infinity but the acceleration already drops to 1/4 if you are 6,378 km from the Earth's surface (another Earth's radius) and that's not too different from the length of flights that airplanes can do, and so on. So America just invested lots of money, produced rockets that can leave the Earth's gravity, and added some (battery-driven!) lunar modules that could have landed people on the Moon.

Let me avoid details but this procedure looks plausible for the 1969 technology – while the modern computer-assisted movie tricks weren't too good. So those 47 years ago, it could have been easier to do the real hard work and land than to create a convincing fake movie and to make all the people think what they should think if the goal is to fake the moonlanding.

Fake moonlanding: just a ring of people would be enough to do it

On the other hand, I totally disagree with the guy that all 400,000 people in NASA would have to actively and knowingly cooperate in deception if the goal were to deceive. We recently discussed the fake gravitational waves that were injected to LIGO's data back in 2010. A couple of leaders of the collaboration (perhaps ten?) have the ability to press the button and add the fake discovery signal to the LIGO data. The remaining almost 1,000 people were supposed to work like mindless employees, doing their job and not caring whether the signal they are processing is real or fake! And they did their work well. The paper was sent for publication when everyone, including the rank-and-file LIGO members, were told that the signal was a drill.

For LIGO, my estimate was that 1% were enough for the "big decisions". 1% of NASA's 400,000 would be 4,000. I am actually confident that the number of people in NASA who would be enough to organize a fake project would be even far smaller than 4,000. Almost all the NASA could have been doing something that looked like the real work. Now, many of the NASA employee would probably have the feeling that "they couldn't do the job that was expected from them" if the real moonlanding had been impossible. So they would be told that their work was moved to a different, distant department, and that would have been said to find some "solution".

Several people would be shooting the movie and the filmmakers doing this stuff wouldn't even be told in advance that they are working on a scam. I don't want to describe all the details but my point is that the most likely realization of such a scam would occur when even most of the NASA employees would be completely deceived – much like most of LIGO was tricked in 2010.

Again, the main reason why I don't favor such alternative explanations is that "the story of moonlanding as a real event" makes so much sense. All the details about these events agree with my understanding of the physics, and so on. So I don't really use Grimes' "can't keep secret" methodology to decide whether the moonlanding was real or fake. There are much better arguments. And if I were only allowed to use the "can't keep secret" argument, I would have to substitute a far smaller number of the "conspirators" than Grimes did.

Intentional deception vs ignorance and fog about scientific predictions

But I think that the application of the "can't keep secret" argumentation to all other examples mentioned by Grimes is downright ludicrous because in these cases, we're not really talking too much about facts as about conjectured relationships between events and uncertain predictions for the future and also about various interpretations, misinterpretations, and exaggerations of people's knowledge about them.

The point is that someone in NASA would have surely known that he was actively deceiving the rest of the world if the moonlandings were fake.

On the other hand, no one needs to know – and no one really knows – what the temperatures will be like in 2100. So one doesn't need a full-fledged deception for some of the climate scientists to say that the Earth is in danger; ordinary ignorance and stupidity are enough (along with some shaping of one's own beliefs and distortion of his own words). Moreover, because the Armageddon became a popular topic for the politicians some 25 years ago, the climate science has been deliberately hiring green activists and intellectually impotent people as climate scientists in recent 20 years – so they should be expected not to understand the underlying science well.

Similarly but less clearly, the impact of the vaccines on the nerve system of humans is a problematic issue. Just like in the case of the greenhouse effect, some effect surely exists and has been shown to be nonzero in lots of papers with hundreds of citations (which I discussed recently). But just like the CO2-induced greenhouse effect, the effect may still be so tiny that it can't possibly influence planning as long as the planning is rational.

Wrong numbers of people in AGW, autism-vaccination links

Grimes says that there are over 400,000 "climate scientists" who agree that the climate panic is justified but who would have to know about a "hoax" if the climate hysteria were a hoax. Now, this claim is absolute nonsense. The actual numbers he should have substituted are smaller by many, many orders of magnitude.

Despite the artificial and politically driven inflation of the climate science, the number of climate scientists in the world is about 20,000. But only a few percent of this amount – hundreds – have the expertise and do the relevant work to actually know something about the hypothetical future effects of CO2. The intersection of this "set of hundreds of researchers" with the "people who actively talk about big climate problems in the future" is even smaller and I am confident that their number may be said to be below 100 or at most 200.

You can see how extremely small the number of "climate scientists who have the same concerns or attitude as the green activitists" is if you look at the attempts of RealClimate.ORG to find guest bloggers since the birth of that blog. The blog was founded by 10 or so climate alarmists in late 2004. The founders were those climate alarmists (those believing that it's right for the mankind to "fight climate change" by fighting the fossil fuels etc. and that it's "right for all the people to be told" about this hypothetical threat) who were employed as some kind of climate scientists at the same moment. One dozen of scientists and a few more dozens of "similar" people could have marginally joined them in those more than 11 years. Surely if there were many hundreds of climate scientists who believe that we should "wrestle" with climate change to "save the Earth", they would have joined their forces with RealClimate.ORG and other people in the recent 10 years.

But the number of such people is extremely tiny – lower than 100, as I claim. Gavin Schmidt et al. are lone wolves. And almost all of them are left-wing ideologues and self-serving crooks, anyway. Equally importantly, the claims that they are making are not always 100% untruths. They are often rhetorical exercises designed to make the listeners believe something else than the speaker has actually said.

Most importantly, if Grimes talks about the "revelation of the hoax" that one has to avoid, you know, lots of climate scientists have already revealed the hoax. Richard Lindzen, Roy Spencer, John Christy, Fred Singer, now pretty much Judith Curry. I could continue and the number of climate scientists who actively say that the hysteria is ludicrous is at least comparable to the number of climate scientists who actively spread the hysteria. The analogous situation in the Apollo case would be that one-half of the people in many departments of NASA would already be admitting that the moonlanding was a deception. Maybe NASA did build some rockets and modules etc. but they were not able to do what was claimed that they did and some help from the Hollywood was needed to make the "story" in that case, too. ;-)

When all the logic is applied correctly, Grimes' formalism brings you pretty much zero evidence about the climate change – in one way or another – and I think that the same comment applies to the autism-vaccination link (even though my conclusion about this particular question may be closed to Grimes' conclusion). Maybe the "coverup of cure for cancer" is the best example where Grimes' argumentation sort of works. If some people have really found some good cure, many people would have learned about it because the excitement would be immense and the secret couldn't continue because a huge percentage of medical researchers finds human lives more important than some "disciplined secret-keeping" or someone's controversial plans to regulate the world population by keeping diseases around.

At the end, while Grimes' paper tries to be "clever", it's obvious that the broader philosophy into which Grimes' thinking degenerates is nothing else than the mindless group think. By mindlessly repeating some claims that are being associated with large groups of people (even though only a tiny portion of these people really actively pushes them), you aren't guaranteed to be correct. But you don't have to be a player in some amazing conspiracy, either. For example, if you buy the claims about the climate threats, most likely, you are just an ordinary inconsequential moron.

Grimes' paper has some "traces" of rational thinking and most of the Yes/No conclusions about the particular conspiracy theories may be right but much of the detailed paper's argumentation shows the exact opposite – that he just isn't thinking about the world around him rationally. Too many other people considering themselves scholars think irrationally about almost everything, too.

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