According to Harold Camping, today (Oct. 21, 2011) is the end of the world.
He started out with a hook to get people's attention - after all, it's an interesting concept, right? It also didn't hurt that he also started out with his own mass media entertainment network. He then presented a very selective interpretation of the established literature, which conveniently mirrored his own theories.
It didn't matter that existing experts on that literature found his claims ridiculous -- Camping's claims were aimed to attract people with very little education in that area, but paradoxically still believed the literature in question to be so authoritative that they readily accepted that it must have secrets that no other experts had revealed yet. The experts tried to refute his claims with proof, but the believers had already convinced themselves that...
Ugh. Okay, it's getting painful for me to keep on writing this little parable without naming names, but you get the picture. Find people who want to believe that the whole story is wrong, tell them they're right, and get them to mistrust anyone who claims to understand the issue better than you. The tricky part, of course, is getting them to accept your word as so final on the subject that they don't have to look into the matter themselves.
It's easy to observe these people from a distance, and easier still to laugh at them behind their backs. But these theories are harmful. First of all, they're harmful to their followers. When the world doesn't end tomorrow, wising up to this sort of con game will be unbearably painful. Who wants to talk to their family the next day, and admit that they were wrong in a fundamental way about so many things? Who wants to hear an "I told you so" from everyone in their life? More likely, they'll find some other interpretation and some other crowds, just to avoid such a horrible moment. It's a net loss for society.
It's harmful to non-believers, too. Leading questions like this trick you into answering on their terms. It's like asking if Barack Obama was really born in the United States. The very act of answering forces you to treat it like a real question, which plants the idea in your head that it is a real question. And the flip side, of course, is that refusing to answer gives the question legitimacy it doesn't deserve.
And finally, it's harmful to our news media. They demean themselves by reporting it, and that's a high price to pay for ratings.
It's becoming apparent that in today's superheated media, we're going to have to come up with a better way to stop people from making other people stupider. I just wish I knew what that was.