Apr 04 2008

Crop Circle Madness

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in July 2005.


Several years ago a “crop circle” (actually a crop square) appeared in Martha Bailey’s cornfield in New Milford, CT. Her field is surrounded by a 7-foot-tall fence of chicken wire and wood. Overnight, in the middle of the field, a “perfect” square of flattened down corn appeared. According to Martha, “Everything was secure, the gates were locked, [so] it had to be something that touched down and flattened it.”

By something, she probably meant an extraterrestrial landing ship. Rather than looking for simpler explanations-like, say, someone climbing a chickenwire fence-believers in crop circles often posit visits from aliens or other paranormal explanations. And, perhaps fueled by pop-culture references like the 1999 M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs , the ranks of believers are growing. For the last couple of decades, mainly in English-speaking nations, summer brings with it an increasing number of ever-more-elaborate pictures made in large fields of wheat and other crops. Crop circle season exactly coincides-amazingly-with the end of school and the beginning of summer vacation.

Crop circles began appearing in England in the early 1980s. At first they were little more than giant simple circles in wheat fields. Over the years they have become more intricate and complex. Many recent crop circles resemble beautiful spirograph-like pictures. Over time, the circles spread from England to America, Australia and other English-speaking countries. They later spread to other European lands and, recently, into Asia as well.

Early investigators hypothesized that wind vortices or other natural phenomena might explain these circles, but the increasing complexity of designs defied such explanations. Later enthusiasts were inspired to ponder, as the author of www.cropcircleresearch.com puts it, “Are they a communication from extra-terrestrials? Evidence of other dimensions or a catalyst to advancing our way of thinking?” Others claim that crop circles are technological schematics. Cereologist (as crop circle investigators are sometimes called) Chris Hardeman has built a device based upon the Barbury Castle crop circle, which can be interpreted as a drawing of a tetrahedron (pyramid shape). He claims that when he applies electrical current to the device it defies gravity by levitating.

We are fortunate to have the world’s expert in crop circles, Colin Andrew, living right here in Branford, CT. He wrote one of the first books on crop circles, called Circular Evidence. I call it Circular Reasoning. To Andrew, cereology is serious science. He is an electrical engineer by training, which he feels qualifies him as a scientist (but that’s another column). According to his web site, “Coming from a scientific background, he has favored using scientific protocols for ground projects but his information gathering has included consulting native peoples around the world, reputable and experienced dowsers as well as intuitive people like mediums and psychics.”

In 1991, two Britons, Doug Bower and David Chorley, confessed to starting the whole modern crop circle hubbub. They reportedly made hundreds of circles, and they were able to demonstrate their techniques (mostly involving boards, rope and stakes). Of course, by then the crop circle phenomenon had grown beyond their imaginings or control. Other artists had surpassed them in skill.

One group of artists, who call themselves simply the Circlemakers, is still creating circles, quite complex and beautiful. Initially they were coy about the origin of their circles, but now they are open about the fact that they are man-made art (although they still like to surround their art in weird claims). As their website states:

Anyone who has looked into ‘paranormal’ phenomena knows that a real mystery is often accompanied by its fraudulent twin; e.g. is crop circle-making art or deception? Rob Irving – who has made circles and experienced the anger of those who feel his ‘art’ mocks their beliefs – claims deception is part of creation and a necessary part of both science and art.

In reaction to Doug and Dave’s revelation, the crop circle community was (ahem!) skeptical. At a psychic book reading I was attending at the time, the topic came up, and an attendee said, “I don’t believe that. How can you explain the perfect circles? That’s just impossible.” If only I had a piece of string and a pencil I could have drawn some miraculously perfect circles for them.

Despite all the double-talk the crop-circle phenomenon has not produced anything incompatible with the hoax hypothesis. Those who claim the circles are a form of communcation (from aliens, another “dimension”, the future, psychic bigfeet, whatever) – have yet to show that crop circles communicate anything. Believers have been unable to show any physical evidence that crops circles have anything other than a human origin.

The crop circle phenomenon also display all the features of a cultural hoax. Circles have spread along language and cultural lines, for example. Also – circles have become increasingly complex over time, which is typical of a hoax phenomenon. The art of making crop circles has evolved, and the complexity of the circles reflects this. Also, whenever careful investigation is done inevitably human hoaxers are discovered – not aliens. Also, let’s not forget that we have confessors who admit to starting the whole thing.

Of course, I am perfectly willing to alter my conclusions about crop circle if new and compelling evidence were to emerge. As soon as Hardeman can get his crop-circle-derived device to levitate.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Crop Circle Madness”

  1. Amon1492on 04 Apr 2008 at 9:22 am

    Crop Circles = Stuff and Nonsense

  2. DevilsAdvocateon 04 Apr 2008 at 9:31 am

    Jim Schnabel wrote a hilarious book on his experiences ‘undercover’ in Great Britain among the movers and shakers and moneymyth makers surrounding the crop circle phenomenon. It seems like 987 woo woo warriors atrributed 987 differing causes, while the circle makers giggled over

    Round In Circles – Jim Schnabel

    Publisher: Prometheus Books 09/30/02
    ISBN-10: 1591021103
    ISBN-13: 978-1591021100

  3. mattdickon 04 Apr 2008 at 10:59 am

    The perfect circle thing has *got* to be addressed. First of all, a compass is pretty easy to make and demonstrate. Second, we’re talking about stalks of corn, the “resolution” of the picture is the distance between the stalks. A rope, a stake and a guy with a board who knows how to make a slip knot can produce a circle *well within* the error produced by the “pixels” of his drawing (what? 18 inches apart maybe?). In fact, corn fields are perfect enough grids that you could just do the math and knock down the stalks individually in a circle and introduce no error at all — zero.

  4. Roy Nileson 04 Apr 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Why is it you never find a crop circle in a rice paddy or a taro patch?

    Although there have been sharecropper circles in cotton fields.

    And it was discovered that the Plains Indians were good at making wagon circles without ever touching a wagon.

  5. Roy Nileson 04 Apr 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Shortly before his death in 1996, David Chorley confessed that he was in fact the son of an alien abductee.

  6. DevilsAdvocateon 04 Apr 2008 at 6:54 pm

    You can’t believe a hoaxer. Smilie.

  7. Roy Nileson 04 Apr 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Smilie rim shot.

  8. Roy Nileson 04 Apr 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Click on the inner prop circle:


  9. DevilsAdvocateon 05 Apr 2008 at 12:53 am

    Duly bookmarked. Thanks.

    You know what would impress me? A crop circle type design rendered in a forest, covering oh… 100 acres, appearing overnight without anyone noticing its construction. But even then I’d need evidence beyond its mere existence to believe it was done by aliens. Ockham’s Razor suggests Paul Bunyan could study the required maths.

  10. Roy Nileson 05 Apr 2008 at 4:22 am

    OK, but what’s in it for us aliens?

  11. DevilsAdvocateon 05 Apr 2008 at 10:42 am

    The undying faith of a planet.

  12. mike gravinoon 05 Apr 2008 at 11:40 am

    Hello to this community of skeptics…I come from a different perspective, that is, one of a seeker of most all “alternative knowledge”. I just happen to have made a fulltime commitment to airing 24/7 on TV anything I can find which disputes what is now dogma…and this includes airing a lot of Colin Andrews work about crop circles…simply because he stood out from the crowd and said that during the two year period he was funded by Lawrence Rockefeller to investigate the circles, he found that 80% were made by the circle-makers. And he has taken a lot of heat and flak from within the circle community for this. I relly don’t like the vailed reference which was made attacking his credentials as a scientist, that is totally uncalled for and shows a lack both understanding and experience in dealing with multidiscipinary research. I know Colin Andrews, have aired his research many times on my TV station in Wasington DC, and can testify that he has been since the early 1980’s, approached this crop circle mystery in a very scientific manner, more so than anyone else. Did you know that the circle-makers themselves have had totally weird experiences while making the circles and afterwards? This is the basis for Colin’s laterst research on the link between consciousness and intention. It also happens to be the latest research involving the alien abduction issue and many others. It seems that quantum physics “spooky interaction at a distance” applies to us also.

  13. DavidCTon 06 Apr 2008 at 7:23 am

    The discouraging thing about the crop circle believers is the clear need of some people to believe in nonsense. The need to believe in the fantastic does not seem to change in face of attacks of reason or evidence.

  14. Roy Nileson 06 Apr 2008 at 2:24 pm

    It’s a somewhat paradoxical observation that in order to maintain a belief in something to a certainty, the believer needs constant or at least periodical reinforcement of that belief.

    That’s why the gods of the supernatural invented (among other things) churches and crop circles.

  15. DevilsAdvocateon 06 Apr 2008 at 8:20 pm

    David, it’s difficult to use logic and reason to change another’s belief if that believe wasn’t formed by logic and reason in the first place. Those beliefs are constructed in much different way.

    The mindset that reviews the evidence and concludes as a faithworthy fact that aliens are visiting in Earth and creating crop circles can effortlessly subvert and negate any controvertive data you offer with a simple whiff of the same magic that allowed certainty and faith in the ‘aliens make crop circles’ idea in the first place.

    I’d define this ‘magic’ as the assemblage of a number of tendencies: weak grasp of scientific evidence and its evaluation, data selective tendencies, willing to go ignorant on a PRN basis, unable to recognize logical fallacies, unable to weigh differing conclusions, devotedly and irrevocably married to the theory, and plenty of other pathways to error.

    Once a believer is in that deep, you may as well just smile, nod, and walk away.

  16. Roy Nileson 06 Apr 2008 at 9:40 pm


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