There are some conspiracies that people genuinely believe are real, owing to various more or less rational explanations. Yet, while some conspiracies are real, most aren’t. For a conspiracy to be effective (meaning you don’t know someone is conspiring) then it needs to be a secret or, alternatively, make it so preposterous that those divulging the conspiracy are made to look like lunatics. Generally speaking, few people need to be involved for this to work. The more, the harder it is to maintain the hoax. Using estimates of how many people are involved in some of the  major alleged conspiracies, one scientist modeled how long it would take for them to be revealed to the public. In the case of the fake moon landing conspiracy, it would take at most three years and eight months for the event to be confirmed as a hoax. Suffice to say that five decades later there has been no credible evidence to support this allegation.

Moon landing hoax

Credit: Thomas Herbrich/AnzenbergerGallery/PDNB Gallery.

Dr David Grimes of Oxford University calculated what are the odds of a whistler-blower, like Edward Snowden, exposing a conspiracy or an accidental leak taking place. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals. If  2,521 people are involved in a plot, than it will likely be revealed no later than five years’ time. A plot can stay undetected for 10 years if 1,000 people are involved, while a century-long conspiracy needs fewer than 125 collaborators.

Grimes applied this model to four real-life scenarios: the moon landing is fake, climate change is a hoax, vaccines are dangerous and deliberately given to the populace and the cure for cancer exists but suppressed by big pharma.

“A number of conspiracy theories revolve around science. While believing the Moon landings were faked may not be harmful, believing misinformation about vaccines can be fatal,” said Dr Grimes.

“However, not every belief in a conspiracy is necessarily wrong – for example, the Snowden revelations confirmed some theories about the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

“It is common to dismiss conspiracy theories and their proponents out of hand but I wanted to take the opposite approach, to see how these conspiracies might be possible. To do that, I looked at the vital requirement for a viable conspiracy – secrecy.”

The moon landing conspiracy suggests that Neil Armstrong, as well as the other astronauts from the other five Apollo moon landings, never actually made it to the moon. Instead, it was all staged inside a studio, realistically filmed such that to give the impression that the astronauts set foot on the moon. Evidence justifying this rhetoric includes Buzz Aldrin planting a waving American flag on the moon, which critics say proves that he was not in space. The flag’s movement, they say, clearly shows the presence of wind, which is impossible in a vacuum. NASA says that Aldrin twisted the flag when he posted it in the lunar soil, hence wiggly movements. Others claim Stanley Kubrick may have helped NASA fake the first lunar landing, given that his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odessey proves that the technology existed back then to artificially create a spacelike set. Then there’s the case of astronauts  Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee who all died in a fire while testing equipment destined for the first lunar mission. The three might have not agreed to go along with the conspiracy, and were executed.

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The Oxford researcher modeled his calculation on previously exposed scandals, like NSA Prism, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or FBI intentionally doctored forensic evidence. Image: PLOS One

The Oxford researcher modeled his calculation on previously exposed scandals, like NSA Prism, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or FBI intentionally doctored forensic evidence. Image: PLOS One

Many of these claims do not actually prove these conspiracies are real. The same claims aren’t necessarily proven wrong either, which is what makes them appealing. A lot of things don’t add up for the fake moon landing conspiracy. For one, the moon landings were a direct race to the top between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The soviets must have carefully monitored the U.S. attempts and tracked their lander landing on the moon. If it was fake, it would have been in the Soviet’s best interest to expose it. After all, the Soviets didn’t even try to land cosmonauts on the moon there after. Hundreds of samples of lunar rocks were taken home and independently analyzed by many universities around the world. Then… you can see the flags American astronauts hoisted on the moon to this day, still there undisturbed after decades.

apollo 16 flag

The Apollo 16 mission flag, still in place to this day, as seen in this photo captured by the LRO. (c) NASA

Apollo 17 traces left on the moon. Image: NASA

Apollo 17 traces left on the moon. Image: NASA

Grimes’ model suggests that given the 411,000 people working at NASA at the time, the moon landing would have been revealed as fake in  three years and eight months. The climate change conspiracy, involving 405,000 scientists and research staff, would have lasted just three years and nine months. If Big Pharma had a cure for cancer, this should have been credibly revealed to the world within three years and three months, Dr Grimes concludes in the journal PLOS One.

conspiracy

Image: PLOS One

“‘Not everyone who believes in a conspiracy is unreasonable or unthinking. I hope that by showing how eye-wateringly unlikely some alleged conspiracies are, some people will reconsider their anti-science beliefs.Ț

“This will of course not convince everyone; there’s ample evidence that belief in conspiracy is often ideological rather than rational, and that conspiracy theories thrive in an echo chamber. This makes challenging the more odious narratives much more difficult.

“If we are to address the multitudinous difficulties facing us as a species, from climate change to geopolitics, then we need to embrace reality over ideologically motivated fictions.

“To this end, we need to better understand how and why some ideas are entrenched and persistent among certain groups despite the evidence, and how we might counteract this.”