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How to Tell If Conspiracy Theories Are Real: Here’s the Math

By Taylor Kubota via Live Science

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.
Credit: NASA

A faked moon landing or a hidden cure for cancer are just a couple of large-scale conspiracies that, if true, would have come to light within five years following their alleged cover-ups, according to a mathematical formula put together by one physicist.

David Robert Grimes, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oxford who studies cancer, is familiar with conspiracy theorists. His mainstream writing for the likes of The Guardian and BBC News has included controversial topics that lend themselves to conspiracies, including homosexuality, climate change and water fluoridation.

Ten characteristics of conspiracy theorists - a look into the mind of conspiraloons, nutjobs and tin foil hatters“The charge that there is a scientific conspiracy afoot is a common one,” said Grimes, in an email interview with Live Science, “and almost inevitably those making these charges will descend into accusing one of shilling or being an agent of some malignant entity.” In response to his work, conspiracy theorists have threatened him, even tried to get him removed from his academic position. These interactions made Grimes curious about why conspiracies have such a strong hold on so many people, and the chances that they might be true. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories Explained]

For this new study, Grimes considered four common conspiracy beliefs: that NASA faked the 1969 moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission, that human-caused climate change isn’t real, that vaccines are unsafe, and that pharmaceutical companies are hiding cancer cures from the public. He created an equation to figure out how long these four cover-ups would likely last (if indeed they were cover-ups), given how many people are involved, the likelihood of leaks from the inside (whether on purpose or by accident), and how much upkeep would be required to keep everything under wraps.

To estimate the chances that any one person would reveal secret activities, Grimes looked at three actual leaked conspiracies:

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Mars Hoaxes: Why We Believe

by Stephanie Pappas via Live Science

Mars-Hoax_300pxFirst, let’s get one thing out of the way: Mars is not going to look as big as the moon in the night sky tonight. Or tomorrow night. Or any other night, barring some sort of unforeseen planetary catastrophe.
Any emails or Facebook messages to the contrary are, alas, nothing but a hoax. Rumors that Mars would appear as large as the moon first emerged in 2003, when the Red Planet was actually passing closer than usual to Earth. Since then, the hoax has circulated every year and is going around yet again, despite multiple attempts by NASA to debunk this myth.
Internet hoaxes are a dime a dozen, but there seems to be something about Mars that keeps this particular hoax alive. Perhaps it’s a fascination with a planet that’s so close to Earth — or perhaps the real-life discoveries from Mars are so amazing that the hoax seems believable, suggested Joshua Bandfield, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute and the University of Washington.

Continue Reading: Mars Hoaxes: Why We Believe

Spontaneous Human Combustion: Facts & Theories

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Live Science

For well over a century, some have claimed that people can suddenly and inexplicably explode into a ball of fire. The phenomenon is called spontaneous human combustion (SHC), and it has been described in many popular books on mysteries and the unexplained.
spontaneous human combustionThough the term “spontaneous human combustion” is of fairly recent vintage, it was a rare-but-real concern to many in the 1800s. In fact, there are nearly a dozen references to people bursting into flames in pre-1900 fiction. The most famous example is Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel “Bleak House,” in which a character explodes into fire, though the phenomenon can also be found in the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Washington Irving and others. In modern times, SHC has appeared in movies and on television shows, including “The X-Files,” and it’s even, sort of, the super-power of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in “Fantastic Four” comic books.

Spontaneous combustion theories

Fires do not typically start on their own. When investigators search for the cause of forest fires, they don’t assume that the flame ignited itself. Rather, they usually suspect that a careless camper or a lightning strike caused it. However, many things can self-ignite without exposure to flames, under the right circumstances, including coal dust, piles of compost and used oily rags.
spontaneous human combustion_300pxBut it’s a whole different matter to claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason. There is no doubt that bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce the human body to ashes in the course of a few hours. The mystery of SHC lies in the supposedly strange circumstances under which victims burst into flames. Typically, the story goes, there is no obvious source of ignition, no open fires nearby that might set the person aflame. Furthermore, the victims are killed, and not, for example, only partly burned on one arm or a leg; SHC is fatal. Some claim that burning often seems to begin in the chest or stomach area, leaving the grisly remains of legs and hands intact. Others claim that the furniture and floors under and surrounding the victims (including even their clothing) remain mysteriously unburned.

A closer look

spontaneous human combustion 854_250pxSome of these popular claims are simply wrong. For example, there are many photographs of supposed SHC victims that clearly show extensive burning and damage to the clothing and surroundings of the burned person. It’s also important to understand a bit of fire forensics: many fires are self-limiting; that is, they put themselves out naturally because they run out of fuel. Though the public often sees uncontrolled fires completely engulfing and burning down entire rooms and buildings, fires are unpredictable. It is quite possible, for example, for only a rug, bed, or sofa to catch fire without spreading to the rest of the room. Because fires normally burn upward instead of outward, there is nothing paranormal or strange about finding a victim in one part of a room burned to death while the rest of the room has little more than smoke damage.
What about the source of ignition?

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