Jan 06 2014

The Salinas Crop Circle

I can’t resist this excellent example of the human capacity for ad-hoc reasoning and pattern recognition. The Salinas Crop Circle was discovered in late December, and instantly became famous in the crop circle world. It is an example of a complex design, that begs to be interpreted.

Crop circle believers – those who think the designs that are often found drawn in various crops around the world (curiously following cultural lines) are the product of aliens trying to communicate in their abstruse way with humans, like to find meaning in the crop circles. This becomes an exercise in pattern recognition, as they are often trying to find meaning where none exists.

Here is one example. The author, assuming the crop circle is an alien communication, comes up with an elaborate interpretation. He believes it refers to comet ISON, which recently burned up on its journey around the sun. This itself is a good example of “retrodicting.” I would be more impressed if a crop circle predicted something yet to be discovered.

The author interprets that middle square section with dots as braille and comes up with the number 192. It turns out, this is a correct interpretation (more below). He writes:

Its first inner code shows a brief message in Braille saying “192-192-2-192-1-192-192”. This may be a symbolic reference to the British search engine “192.com” (see http://www.192.com). Its implication might be that “the blind will see, and those who search will find”

He tells us 192 is a mystical number that comes up frequently in crop circles.  He also interprets some damage to the crops as a comet, the circles around the outer edge as either planets or at marketing the numbers on a clock, and:

Its third intermediate code involves a series of alphabetic characters in Morse code. They seem to read: “E-T B I-S-O-N S-T-S One interpretation of this cryptic message might be: “E T B(e)” or “extra-terrestrials exist”. Then “I-S-O-N (comet)” is an “S-T-S (space transportation system)” like for the NASA space shuttles.

What is interesting is how compelling it seems to us when we can find patterns, especially complex ones. We tend to react as if the fact that we can find a pattern means that it is real. We inherently lack an intuitive understanding of the power of data mining. In other words – we fail to appreciate the possible number of patterns that we can see when we use open-ended criteria. There are countless possible patterns, and the fact that we hit upon one or more means nothing – except that we are good at finding patterns and connections.

The Reveal

This is one of those uncommon cases where we have a definitive answer in the end, which is what makes it such a powerful example. The crop circle was actually commissioned by NVIDIA as a promotional stunt for their new mobile graphics chip. Here is a video of the making of the crop circle. True believers might try to deny this evidence by saying it occurred after the fact as a distraction, but that is simply not possible. There would not have been time to fake this video, and to come up with an alternate interpretation of the design that so clearly matches NVIDIA’s new chip.

For example, the 192 in braille is accurate, but the 192 refers to the number of processors in the chip. There is a reason why 192 might crop up frequently in the context of computers – because it is 64 x 3, and 64 is a multiple of 8. Because of how computers are built, you will notice that from kilobytes to terabytes, hard drives, flash drives, RAM, etc. all come in such multiples – 64, 128, 256, 512, etc.

It’s interesting that crop circle believers have come to believe that the gray aliens like to communicate in braille. Apparently, so do human crop circle artists.

Watch the video for the full explanation of the meaning in  the crop circle. And then see how clever people can be in coming up with alternate interpretations. I guess this is a post-modern approach to crop circles as a narrative form.

On that point – also pay attention to the words of the crop circle artists interviewed in the NVIDIA video. They say, essentially, that part of their art form is creating the crop circles in the context of mystery. It is a collaboration with the crop circle believers, who provide the “other worldly” context and interpretation of their art.

Another artist also says that complex mathematical designs, the ones that look as if they have really complex relationships, are actually the easiest to lay out and create.

This always reminds me of my personal encounter with a crop circle believer who challenged me by saying, “how can they create perfect circles? That’s impossible.” I then introduced her to the concept of a compass, the crop circle equivalent of which is a stake and a rope.

Simple techniques can create mathematical perfection and complexity. That is sort-of the nature of math and geometry, which is all about relationships. These relationships create countless patterns, and believers can plumb the depths of those patterns to their endless satisfaction.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “The Salinas Crop Circle”

  1. BBBlueon 06 Jan 2014 at 12:39 pm

    You have been blinded by science yet again. Based on the video, it should be obvious to everyone that Gingers are actually an alien life form capable of enslaving humans and imposing their will upon them.

  2. froesccnon 06 Jan 2014 at 12:42 pm

    In this case I find the most striking feature is a path coming in from I the right side of the image that looks like somebody drove a tractor into the field to make the circle. But of course that could have been the aliens approach too 😀

  3. elmer mccurdyon 06 Jan 2014 at 2:02 pm

    The SCAMinas Crop Circle you mean, heheh.

  4. oldmanjenkinson 06 Jan 2014 at 3:33 pm

    That anyone believes these are anything but hoaxes is incredible. If we (for example) were to travel millions of miles to another solar system, to a planet that is inhabited by sentient beings, would our directive be to draw in the sand, or in some sort of biologic (such as plants) to “speak” to the inhabitants? Ugg

  5. BillyJoe7on 06 Jan 2014 at 4:58 pm


    But the aliens could just have a sense of humour.
    …somewhat better developed than our friend elmer above (;

  6. BillyJoe7on 06 Jan 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Speaking of which, I’m expecting a comment from Will Neitchke any minute now.

  7. szervalon 06 Jan 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Honestly. When i first saw the picture I immediately accociated to a chip or processor. And it was after i looked the picture that i read the full article. 🙂

  8. Will Nitschkeon 07 Jan 2014 at 5:44 am

    Steve you seem to be conflating issues here and your interpretation strikes me as incoherent. Pattern recognition is fundamental to the way our brains work. There is nothing ‘ad hoc’ about it. It is not, however, infallible. Your capacity to write this article, my capacity to read it, or in indeed, my capacity to find my car keys or your capacity to make a medical diagnosis, are all fundamental aspects of the pattern recognition capacities of the brain. ‘Ad hoc reasoning’ does not follow from this pattern recognition capacity, otherwise all reasoning would be ‘ad hoc’. I can look at the moon and I, like everyone else, have the ability to vaguely recognise a face. It doesn’t follow therefore, that I interpret this as meaning there is a Moon God. Although someone else may do so. A lot more is, obviously, going on internally. We might want to look at why different individuals construct different theories of reality, and there are many psychological theories competing for our interest here. But these reasoning processes have nothing to do with the brain’s capacity to recognise patterns. Unless you’re making some sort of utterly trivial observation; in which case we might as well attribute breathing to ‘ad hoc reasoning’ because without breathing there would be no ad hoc reasoning, because we’d be dead.

  9. Bruceon 07 Jan 2014 at 6:05 am


    Two points:

    1) What the heck are you on about?
    2) What the heck are you smoking?

    And yes, this is very much ad hominem because you obviously just want to write things to sound intelligent and you make less sense than most trolls I have seen on this forum.

  10. Steven Novellaon 07 Jan 2014 at 7:23 am

    Pattern recognition is a fundamental part of how our brains work. The challenge is differentiating real from illusory patterns.

    Ad hoc reasoning is the application of open-ended criteria as needed in order to support a pre-existing conclusion.

    What is happening here is the the believers are using pattern recognition to come up possible interpretations of the crop circles. They then use ad hoc reasoning to justify those interpretations, rather than applying some standard to determine which interpretations are likely to be valid.

  11. daedalus2uon 07 Jan 2014 at 8:33 am

    Humans (and all organisms that have sensory systems to respond to predators) have hyperactive agency detection. Our sensory systems are biased to produce false positives instead of false negatives.

    Even clams have hyperactive agency detection. If you jiggle them, they shut up tight. They are responding to that jiggling as if it is the attack of a predator.

  12. ccbowerson 07 Jan 2014 at 1:14 pm

    “If you jiggle them, they shut up tight. They are responding to that jiggling as if it is the attack of a predator.”

    That would be a ‘true’ positive, as humans are their predators =). Predators also demonstrate a high level of agency detection to be able to detect the edible.

  13. ccbowerson 07 Jan 2014 at 1:21 pm

    It looks like Will did not quite understand how ‘ad hoc reasoning’ was being used here (or maybe what it means more generally), but Steve clarified. That did not stop Will from finding a flaw in this post, which was entirely due to his misunderstanding. This is not the first time – a little intellectual humility is in order.

  14. Will Nitschkeon 07 Jan 2014 at 4:21 pm


    “What is happening here is the the believers are using pattern recognition to come up possible interpretations of the crop circles. They then use ad hoc reasoning to justify those interpretations, rather than applying some standard to determine which interpretations are likely to be valid.”

    No they are not. And I explained why. You’re just repeating the claim I criticised. I know it’s one of your favourite “explanations” but it’s no more than hand waving. Unless your speculations include some sort of explanation for *why* some people make implausible interpretations and others make more modest ones (given the fact that we all share the same pattern recognition tools) this article is no more than amateur pop neuro babble…

  15. BillyJoe7on 07 Jan 2014 at 4:45 pm


    BJ: “I’m expecting a comment from Will Neitchke any minute now.”

    Well, I meant Dunning Kruger of course and he didn’t disappoint.

    Just for you, Will Nitschke…
    The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

  16. SimonWon 07 Jan 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Like szerval I immediately recognized it as a chip, but then I’m in IT.

    The folks at the Met Office training college use to take great joy in inserting the silhouette of a cat into the training satellite images (infrared cloud imagery), and in this unfamiliar context a lot of people (myself included) would miss that the odd thing they were looking at was cat shaped.

  17. BBBlueon 10 Jan 2014 at 12:29 am

    Another example of pattern recognition:


  18. BBBlueon 10 Jan 2014 at 12:38 am

    Sorry, I was careless, should have said pareidolia. Guess I was trying to force a cool pic into a place where it doesn’t belong.

  19. hippiehunteron 12 Jan 2014 at 9:05 am

    Dunning-Kruger + Alan Sokal = Will Nitschke

  20. nybgruson 13 Jan 2014 at 8:46 am

    Was browsing Reddit and came across this which made me think of this post.

    And boy is this Will guy… interesting. Some people just love to hear the sound of their keyboard clacking away, I suppose.

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