Breaking down the conspiracy theory mindset at the heart of climate change denial

Climate change is happening because the earth is warming at an accelerated rate, a significant portion of that acceleration is due to human activity, and not taking measures to mitigate it will have disastrous consequences for life as we know it.

In other words: Earth is heating up, it's kinda our fault, and if we don't fix it, we're screwed.

This is the consensus of the vast majority of the world's scientists who study such things for a living. Case closed. End of story.

How do we know this to be true? Because pretty much every reputable scientific organization on the planet has examined and endorsed these conclusions. Thousands of climate studies have been done, and multiple peer-reviewed studies have been done on those studies, showing that somewhere between 84 and 97 percent of active climate science experts support these conclusions. In fact, the majority of those studies put the consensus well above 90%.


An 84 to 97 percent chance of rain would have any reasonable person canceling their outdoor picnic plans. An 84 to 97 percent majority in any election would be an unprecedented blowout. If 84 to 97 percent of the people in a packed stadium stood up and walked out in protest, it would be an overwhelming statement of solidarity.

RELATED: A plaque addressed 'to the future' marks Iceland's first glacier lost to the climate crisis

So why do many people, especially in the United States, deny that climate change is real, perpetuated by human activity, and a serious crisis facing humanity?

There are multiple avenues by which people arrive at climate change denial, some of them more or less whackadoodle than others. Sometimes it's a lack of understanding of how science works. Sometimes it's a philosophical or political stance that supersedes science and reason. Sometimes it's a lapse in logic that leads people to listen to lone voices and ignore what most scientists say. Sometimes it's a misguided belief that questioning anything "mainstream" makes someone a critical thinker—a belief backed up by previously fringe voices who claim that the majority of people are sheep, and that the truth is constantly being obscured by evil forces.

But no matter which climate change denial road you go down, they all ultimately lead to the same kooky but practically impenetrable belief: That the majority of the world's scientists—the people who have made it their life's work to study and understand the world we live in—are part of some huge global conspiracy to control the masses and/or bilk the populace out of their hard-earned dollars.

It doesn't make sense, of course. But there's no convincing them of that.

If you point out to a climate change denier that the majority of scientists agree on the conclusion that climate change is happening, perpetuated by humans, and dangerous, they will point you to an article that explains why the study that came up with a 97% consensus was flawed. If you point out that multiple other studies have come to similar conclusions, just with slightly differing percentages, they'll point to a handful of individual scientists who have said that their work was misrepresented in one of those studies. When you point out that a tiny minority doesn't outweigh the majority, they'll try to point out all the ways that scientists' predictions in the past were wrong, how models are flawed, and how XYZ causes changes in the climate and not humans. When you point to the science refuting those claims, they'll start down the conspiracy theory road, and that's when the whole discussion falls apart.

It happens every time. What begins as a discussion of the science descends into a quagmire of political paranoia and conspiracy theory, which makes reasonable debate darn near impossible. Facts are "fake news." Majority consensus is "media manipulation." Academic arguments are an "agenda." Peer-reviewed publications are "politically-driven propaganda."

Climate change denial cannot honestly be maintained through any significant examination of the science, which is why when you get far enough into discussions with deniers, conspiracy theories always emerge. And at that point, continuing the discussion is an exercise in futility.

If someone believes that most scientists around the world have secretly sold out—that they have published inaccurate conclusions in order to put money into their own pockets—then that person hasn't known many scientists. If someone believes that the governments of the world, who have a hard time ever agreeing on anything, have secretly conspired together to create a global panic about the planet in order to implement some kind of globalist agenda, then that person has a screw loose. If someone believes that NASA is lying, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is lying, and the American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, and American Meteorological Society, and Geological Society of America are lying, then there's no reasoning with them. If someone believes that this list of 200 scientific organizations around the world are lying, then no amount of evidence will convince them of the scientific consensus.

What do you say to someone who has decided that thousands upon thousands of scientists worldwide, who have used scientific methods of inquiry and analysis and come up with the same basic conclusions, are all part of some big hoax? What do you do when that kind of lunacy has been repeated by the person sitting in arguably the most influential position on the planet? How do you convince someone to listen to the majority of scientists on science matters, when that should simply be common sense? How do you convince someone who believes that the masses are deluded that they are, in fact, the one who has been duped?

Conspiracy theory thinking is notoriously difficult to undo. I can 100% guarantee that there will be commenters on this post who accuse me of being a shill for some political party, a liberal propaganda pusher, or a fake news proprietor who has fallen prey to the Marxist/communist/socialist/globalist agenda, simply because I wrote an article saying we should listen to the majority of scientists about science. What a time to be alive.

RELATED: Climate change is not a partisan issue. No seriously, it isn't.

Please note that there are some effective ways to debate a science denier, which you can find outlined here. And it is important to do so. But it's also important to recognize that such debates are for the lurking readers' benefit, not to change the mind of the person you're talking to. If they've gone so far down the climate change denial road that they've reached conspiracy territory, there's little chance of convincing them to listen to reason.

Conspiracy theories are like gila monsters—once one has taken hold, it's nearly impossible to get it to let go. Good luck, friends.

People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."