Once upon a time there was a guy named Bob. Bob was a regular American with a regular middle class job living in a regular house in a regular suburb. One day, Bob was at work when his neighbor called him in a panic. We’ll call the neighbor Mike.
“Bob!” Mike yelled, “Your house is on fire! It’s on fire right now!”
Bob jumped out of his seat and ran to his car. “Did you call the fire department?!”
“Yeah I did! I took a picture too!” Bob’s text messaging dinged and Bob looked at a picture of his attached garage nearly engulfed in flames and smoke. “The fire department said they can save your house if they have permission to knock down your garage!” Mike said breathlessly.
“Yes, of course, do it!” Bob said as he started his car and raced for home. On his way, he got another call from another friend, we’ll call him Mark.
“Bob, did Mike call and ask for permission to knock your garage down?” Mark asked.
“Because I found an email from him talking about doctoring a picture of your garage to make it look like it was on fire.”
Bob hit the brakes and his car squealed to a stop. “He…he what?”
“You know Mike’s the guy the fire department calls when they need demolition work done, right?”
Bob hung up and once again floored it for home. When he arrived he found Mike standing there beside his bulldozer, the fire chief looking on approvingly from his car (not a fire engine), Mark pulling up with a worried look on his face, and his garage a pile of debris. Non-smoking, non-burning debris.
“What did you do!?” Bob demanded as the fire chief handed Mike a check.
Mike feigned surprise. “You told me I could knock your garage down!”
“I told you that because you said it was the only way to save my house! I know it wasn’t on fire! Look at it–it’s not burning, I don’t smell anything but your diesel fumes, there’s no fire engine or water…”
Mike continued to play dumb as Mark walked up. “I saw your email. You faked that picture you sent Bob.”
Mike’s expression went from innocent to outraged. “You…how did you get that email?”
“I know a hacker, he knows I’m friends with Bob. He found it and sent it to me.”
“How DARE you hack into my email!?”
Bob blinked. “Are you saying it’s not true?”
Mike sniveled a bit. “He hacked my emails!” he repeated. “That’s bad!”
“Is. It. True?” Bob demanded. Mike didn’t confirm or deny it. Bob just shook his head in disbelief.
“So let me get this straight, you made up a story about how my house was on fire, got me to give you permission to cause thousands of dollars of damage to my property, just so you could make a few bucks knocking my garage down?”
Mike sniffed. “Well…you have a bigger house than most people on this block! Bigger means there’s more that can catch fire! And it’s not fair!”
By now Bob was finding it hard to restrain himself. “What in the name of all that is holy does THAT have to do with anything…?” Having had his fill, Bob went inside before he did something he’d regret.
A few weeks later Bob heard a knock at his door. It was Mike.
“Hey Bob, hate to tell you this but your house is on fire again,” Mike said.
Bob was more than a little skeptical but when he heard the approaching sirens he thought he’d better look. He saw nothing and smelled no smoke.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve…” he started to tell Mike as the fire trucks pulled up. Mike held up his hands in pretend deference.
“Hey man, I’ve just been looking at my computer models and they don’t lie. According to what I know about the lifestyle you lead and the way you have your wiring set up and where you’ve been parking your car your house is on fire right now.”
“But IT’S NOT ON FIRE,” Bob said as the firefighters started getting out of the trucks and hooking up hoses to fight a fire that wasn’t there.
“What are you, some kind of fire denier?” Mike asked in an almost mocking tone. “Your house is totally on fire. It started in your car and caught on to the porch…”
“Because you already knocked down my damned garage! Wait…my car isn’t on fire!”
“Of course it is! You know how I can tell?” Mike bounded over to the driver’s door of Bob’s car and opened it, and stuck his head inside. “Because it’s COOL in here!”
Bob started to wonder if he was having a nightmare. “I was running the air conditioner on my way home a few minutes ago. And if the car was on fire it would be WARM, moron!”
“Just shows how ignorant you are!” Mike shot back. “You have to get rid of your car RIGHT NOW or your house is going to burn!”
“…are you high?”
“Look at all these firefighters!” Mike shouted, faking incredulity. “Nearly all firefighters agree that your house is on fire right now! They’re the experts, they should know!”
“That’s right,” the lead firefighter grunted, hefting an axe as he walked towards Bob’s car, “97% of us agree your house is minutes away from burning to the ground.”
Bob stood stunned at the ridiculousness of the claim when Mark came running up behind him. “He means 97% of firefighters who answered a two-question internet poll the way the pollsters wanted. All of whom get paid for every time they go out to a fire whether there’s a fire or not,” he told Bob as he physically put himself in between Bob’s car and the fireman.
“Science deniers!” Mike yelled. “Why do you hate your children so much that you want them to burn to death!?”
“The house IS NOT ON FIRE!!!” Bob and Mark screamed back in unison.
Eventually, despite Mike’s efforts to show Bob that his computer model proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his house was burning to cinders around him, Bob and Mark held their ground and Mike and the firefighters went home in disgust, snickering about how stupid they were. For the next few months Mike went about the neighborhood convincing everyone else that their houses were in imminent danger and with every call to the fire department the local taxes went up, and Bob was unable to afford to rebuild the garage that Mike had knocked down, and anyway Mike was successful in getting the fire code changed so that he couldn’t. Mike even tried to tell Bob his house was on fire over and over again and every time Bob reminded him his house had not burned down yet and showed no signs of doing so despite all of Mike’s fevered predictions, and each time Bob shut Mike down Mike just got angrier and more unhinged while Bob started to find Mike’s nonsense more and more morbidly amusing. As the years passed, Bob and Mark tried to tell people that Mike was a liar and show that no one’s house burned down as he predicted and some of his “proof” like the air conditioned car was downright ridiculous, and some people believed them and told Mike to shove it. Others got more worried about Mark’s hacker friend or were too wrapped up in fear about their houses burning down or thought they were smarter than Bob and Mark because computers are smart and the computer said the house was on fire, right? And in the end Bob lived a long, happy (if garage-less) life in his house which never burned down, ignoring Mike in peace and laughing about his foolishness when he had Mark and his family over for dinner, while Mike eventually gave himself lung cancer from the asbestos blanket he wore constantly to keep from burning to death.