“Two May Keep Counsel When the Third’s Away,” but a Thousand? | Vol. 3 / No. 14.3

Can you keep a secret? How about a thousand of your closest friends? | Photo: RestrictedData, CC BY 2.0
Can you keep a secret? How about a thousand of your closest friends? | Photo: RestrictedData, CC BY 2.0

“Two may keep counsel when the third’s away.” So says the villainous Aaron in Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus, before offing a nurse to preserve his great secret: that the Empress’s new son is his. The surest way to keep a secret, he implies, is to tell it to as few people as possible. And new evidence published recently in the journal PLOS One would seem to back him up.

The paper, entitled “On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs,” is all about mathematically modelling the “keepability” of secrets, especially the biggest of secrets we call conspiracies. According to their models, virtually every secret shared by a thousand or more people is doomed to be exposed: “the results of this model,” writes the study’s author Dr. David Robert Grimes, “suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure,” lasting no more than ten years.

This is especially true of very large conspiracies. Take the idea that the moon landings were faked: Grimes estimates that it would take roughly 22,000 people — the staff of the World Health Organization and the CDC — to cover up evidence of vaccines being harmful. This is assuming that you don’t take into account the manufacturers, distributors, etc. who you’d think would have to be involved. The math suggests such a conspiracy would be doomed to failure in fewer than four years. The same goes for climate change being a hoax, or for industry suppression of a cure for cancer.

Now, of course, trying to reason with conspiracy theorists is a little like trying to teach a fish to sing, so I wouldn’t hold your breath. But it’s kind of comforting to know that humans are terrible, in the aggregate, at keeping secrets.

But hey, he’s probably just another reptilian trying to hide the tracks of the new world order behind clever math.

You can find the study here, and the phys.org breakdown here.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.