How Likely Is an 'X-Files'-Style Government Conspiracy?

The truth is out there. In fact, it's pretty hard to keep it hidden, according to a new study.
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The truth is out there. In fact, it's pretty hard to keep it hidden, according to a new study.
(Photo: Fox)

(Photo: Fox)

The 1990s cult-classic television series The X-Files is back on the air this week, and, while the stars have aged, one thing has remained decidedly unchanged: The series is rife with conspiracy theories, particularly of the secret government plot variety. Now, one brave scientist has asked the question that's on all our minds: Just how likely is it that members of a secret government conspiracy could keep their alien-colonization machinations secret?

Really, really, really unlikely, according to new research.

The problem, David Robert Grimes writes in PLoS One, is that such conspiracies simply involve too many people to keep secret. And it's not just a problem for the tin-foil-hat set. "[A] disconcerting number of conspiracy theories which enjoy popular support are demonstrably nonsensical," Grimes writes. "This is particularly true of conspiracies over scientific and medical issues where conspiratorial ideation can lead to outright opposition to and rejection of the scientific method."

If NASA had faked the trip to the Moon, there's a 95 percent chance the deception would have been revealed within just three or four years.

On the other hand, we know that there have been government conspiracies to hide the truth. We know about Watergate, for example, and the more recent revelations concerning the National Security Agency's Prism spy program. In fact, Grimes argues, those revelations tell us something very useful about how likely conspiracies really are—namely, a conservative estimate of the likelihood any one person will blow the whistle on a nefarious plot.

Grimes starts with a simple statistical model that assumes, intuitively, that a secret is more likely to be revealed when there are more people involved and when any one person is more likely to be the source of a leak. Using that model and information on an Federal Bureau of Investigation cover-up of pseudoscientific forensics tests, Grimes estimates that if any one person had a 0.025 percent chance of blowing the whistle in any one year, the cover-up would be revealed after six years (as it was).

Then, Grimes set to figuring out how likely it is any hypothetical conspiracies wouldn't have been revealed by now. Grimes focused on four proposed conspiracies: faked Moon landings, climate change hoaxes, vaccination conspiracies, and the idea that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. He computes that if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had faked the trip to the moon and everyone working there at the time knew enough to figure that out, there's a 95 percent chance the deception would have been revealed within just three or four years. There were similar estimates for the other three supposed schemes.

Incidentally, those estimates take into account the one way for a conspiracy to remain secret forever, namely, for everyone involved to die before they reveal the truth. Grimes assumes, of course, death by natural causes.

"The theory outlined is useful in predicting the broad patterns expected from a conspiracy event, but does not consider the dynamics, motivations and interactions of individual agents," which might be a fruitful avenue for future exploration, Grimes writes.

So yes, X-Files fans, the truth is out there—and in most cases it's already been revealed.

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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