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.

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