Can You Keep a Secret?

Sometimes everything works out exactly as it should.  At my folks’ house on Sunday, everything did.

You see, my dear old dad had a big birthday this week, so the rest of us threw him a surprise party over the weekend.  The idea was hatched sometime around Thanksgiving, plans were finalized in the first week of February, and my mom and I acted as principal planners and co-conspirators all along the way.

This being the first surprise party in which I played a significant role, it proved a novel and enlightening experience in the fine art of duplicity.

All told, somewhere north of 60 people were invited, then promptly commanded to zip their mouths shut.  We took care to meticulously choreograph the birthday boy’s schedule without him realizing it, while also devising a strategy for handling the many things that could go wrong.  Not to mention the dizzying prep work of preparing and ordering (and hiding) all the food and decorations, and then only having an hour or so to set them all up.

With all the moving parts that were involved, it was quite impressive that our diabolical plot went off without a hitch.  Nobody spilled the beans, everyone arrived on time.  Even Mother Nature cooperated, for a change.  The guest of honor was surprised and delighted, and a good time was had by all.

As a group, we proved wholly up to the task of carrying on an open deception for an extended period of time and executing the final “reveal” with clockwork efficiency.

Indeed, so good were we at pulling off this playful con, I wonder if we didn’t miss our calling to work for the feds in Washington, D.C.

As everyone knows, whenever disgruntled American citizens are not condemning their government for being lazy, incompetent and generally feckless, they are accusing it of conducting secret, evil grand plots of near-superhuman ingenuity.

The Kennedy assassination.  The Moon landing.  The September 11 attacks.  President Obama’s birth.  Conspiracy theorists contend that none of these events occurred as the official record says.  Rather, they were somehow staged, altered or otherwise effected by elements of the American government for one nefarious purpose or other, and done in the utmost secrecy so that no one, to this day, has any smoking gun evidence to prove any of them.

While not all government-related conspiracy theories are created equal, and some have even proved correct—what else would you call Watergate?—there is an inherently low probability that any such plot is real, precisely because of how unlikely it would be for that many people to be entrusted to such a titanic secret, and then for all of them to keep quiet after all these years.

No, what actually happens is exactly what you would expect.  Whenever some governmental entity attempts to pull something over on the American people—particularly with a high number of agents involved—not all of the holes get plugged, and eventually, something or somebody cracks.  Watergate is a classic illustration, but so, too, is the ridiculous plan by the Christie administration and the Port Authority to inflict gridlock on the George Washington Bridge.  Sure, the truth of these schemes was kept under wraps for a certain amount of time.  But then one day, it wasn’t.

The thing about a surprise party is that the period of secret-keeping is finite:  You only need to clam up until the actual party occurs.  After that, you can relax and congratulate yourself on a job well done.  As well, revelers are given only so much advance notice, lowering the probability that someone’s guard will drop.

To wit:  It’s entirely possible for 60 people to stay tight-lipped for a month, as my family proved last weekend.  But what if we gave our guests a full six months’ or a year’s warning?  Would the surprise still have succeeded?  We certainly weren’t prepared to take that risk.

If we might reduce all of this to a general formula, it would be that the probability of a conspiracy remaining a secret is inversely proportional to the number of people involved, as well as to the amount of time elapsed since the conspiracy formally commenced.

If this seems all too obvious, it is nonetheless an essential insight into why conspiracy theories at the highest levels of government tend to be so idiotic, and why they should be taken with multiple grains of salt.

In the long run, human beings in large numbers are just not that great at keeping secrets.  Sooner or later, somebody blows the whistle or sends an incriminating e-mail or tweet.  Whether by accident or by design, some people just can’t help themselves.

Not every conspiracy can be as top secret as a birthday party for your dad.

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