Tonight we're going to take our dowsing rods and our tinfoil helmets, stand out in a remote wheat field, and try to feel the psychic energies as a UFO comes down and forms a gigantic complicated geometric pattern by crushing the wheat. It might use a whirling dimensional vortex as its mechanism. It might be ball lightning or some strange effect of the wind. It might be the aliens trying to communicate with us. It might be the Earth herself expressing profundities. Or it might be a couple of clowns with a piece of wood.
We've all heard how in 1991, two old English guys, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, went public with the confession that they had been making crop circles throughout England since 1976, using ropes and planks and simple surveyor's tricks. They generally did it after pub night on Fridays, and had a rollicking good time. They had been enjoying the resulting media circus immensely, and would gladly have taken their secret to the grave, but for Bower's wife who noticed the mileage on his car and wondered if he was having an affair. So, to protect Bower's marital bliss, the two made a public confession, and even did live demonstrations on TV. The media reported that the crop circle phenomenon had been solved. But, of course, to any intelligent person, Bower and Chorley's confession didn't prove a thing, any more than Ray Wallace's family's confession about him making Bigfoot prints proved that there weren't also a thousand other sources of footprints. Artist John Lundberg, who formed a group called Circlemakers, has been making many of the most complex and beautiful crop circles ever since the public confession, including many for commercial purposes. Even I made an effort in the late 1980's. My friend and I took some old skis and were going to make a crop circle in Irvine, California, but when we got there we discovered the last remaining field had just been plowed for a new subdivision.
One good thing about the crop circle phenomenon is that there are very few people left who believe that they have some cause other than pranksters. But those few people are resolute in their belief. Hoaxing is now so prominent that most of the staunchest crop circle researchers now concede that the vast majority of crop circles are manmade. However, some of them have found an "out" that lets them continue to stroke their paranormal explanations for even the manmade variety: Some researchers now believe that the same paranormal or alien forces that create "real" crop circles are also responsible for controlling the minds and actions of the hoaxers. Thus even the manmade crop circles are equally significant as evidence that an unknown intelligence is behind all crop circles.
One prominent researcher of crop circles is a man named Colin Andrews, who used to call himself CPRI or Circles Phenomenon Research International until he ran out of money a few years ago. His web site at CropCircleInfo.com offers CD-ROMs and Powerpoint presentations about crop circles for sale, but little in the way of testable hypotheses about non-human origins of crop circles. His research methods largely center on dowsing and psychics — which is what I'd do too, since those sources produce claims of such a nature that they cannot be tested or falsified.
In 1993, Andrews contacted Masahiro Kahata, a Japanese software engineer who constructed a simple device for measuring electroencephalogram activity and displaying it colorfully on a Macintosh screen. He calls it the Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyzer. Kahata came to England, and the two of them tromped around taking amateur EEGs of people on the street as a control, and also of dowsers in the act of examining crop circles. Andrews reported:
What we found, measuring with a computer real-time in the fields, was that the right brainwave activity of the dowser, at the precise moment those seven rings were measured and reacted to by the dowsing rods, spiked in all the brainwave frequencies — alpha, theta, beta, and delta — at the precise moment the dowsing rods moved.
Andrews regards this as hard scientific evidence that the dowsers are reacting to a physical manifestation of the crop circle, though he's vague on what that might be. As it turns out, Kahata had also done similar experiments on his own in the 1970's, when he applied an earlier version of his device to magicians and self-described psychics while they were performing spoon bending tricks. He got the same results: higher EEG activity during the spoon bending performances. Was this evidence of an unknown psychic force? Science writer and magic teacher Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, offered a different conclusion:
If there is a tightly correlated increase in mental activity while a psychic is bending spoons, it is probably because he is nervous he is going to get caught.
Now I'll grant that most dowsers, especially those who invest the time and money to travel to crop circle sites, are not consciously out to fool anyone and thus aren't nervous that any deception will be detected. But since dowsing of any kind has never passed any rigorously controlled test (sorry, but it hasn't), and it's well established that many psychics and other mediums are genuinely but unconsciously using well established cognitive phenomena to guide their divinations (sorry, but they are), honest dowsers are probably genuinely excited every time their dowsing rods move. And genuine excitement is just as good at making an EEG jump as is the state of being nervous.
Most neurologists agree that EEGs are useful to a certain point. You can derive basic information from them, but they are too vague to indicate anything complex like sending telepathic messages. Intense concentration on a pattern, for example, can produce a recognizable signal in some cases. An epileptic seizure throws up a giant spike. But to state that any given spike indicates the presence of a paranormal force and not the excitement or nervousness of the dowser, you need to leave the realm of what neurologists have learned and enter the land of pure speculation. Andrews himself states that the same spikes in EEG activity were observed on one occasion when a military helicopter flew close by. Such a flyby would make me pretty nervous.
So much for dowsing the crop circles. What about their formation? The people who make them use simple tools and surveying techniques to transfer complex plans into a full-scale wheat field, but what about those said to be formed by paranormal means? How does that happen? Colin Andrews explains further:
The eyewitnesses I've interviewed in many countries over the years have all agreed with me on one point: when they claim to have seen circles form, they appear in 10 to 15 seconds.
In any picture you see of Colin Andrews visiting a crop circle, he's loaded with camera equipment and so is everyone else in the picture. In fact, it's hard to find any picture of crop circle investigators where everyone in the shot is not holding a camera or binoculars or something, finger on the trigger. So my question to Colin Andrews would be, "Did you not ask these crop circle investigators who witnessed the formations why, in every single case, they failed to produce a single photograph or frame of videotape showing this wonderful creation?" If I were Colin Andrews, these investigators are not those whose testimonials I would flaunt to the world. Instead I would tell them they screwed up, and probably even accuse them of trying to hoax me. How can they spend all day and night camped out on the hilltop, finger on the video camera trigger, witness a crop circle forming, and produce only a lengthy list of verbal reports, and no video? Inexcusable for a conscientious researcher. The first thing I would fault Colin Andrews for would be requiring only the lowest of standards for the information he accepts as evidence.
So what about all these numerous eyewitness accounts of crop circles being formed, in seconds, by hovering balls of light? Well, again, I'd point to the evidence issue. These eyewitnesses, or at least those reporting the accounts, always turn out to be crop circle believers. If they'd seen a real event, they probably would have used that camera hanging around their neck. But in every case, they've failed to do so.
Well, almost every case. There is one famous video of white balls of light actually creating an entire crop circle, in seconds. It's called the Oliver Castle video, and you can find it on YouTube. It was made by John Wabe in 1996 or 1997, a partner in a small video production company called First Cut Studio. He took some simple video of the completed crop circle, and ran it through their Quantel Paintbox. In a video subsequently broadcast on the Discovery Channel and on National Geographic, he showed how he rubber-stamped other pieces of the wheatfield background to "erase" the crop circle, and then un-erased it bit by bit underneath some flying white dots that he added. He then added some shake and some artificial generation loss to the video, and presto, a great hoax was done. For years it was considered definitive proof by many crop circle believers. But when he finally went public with how he made it, guess what? Few believed him, and many still believe to this day that the video is genuine, and that it's his confession that is the real hoax. Web pages accuse him of earning huge sums of money — government payoffs for discrediting a genuine video. Even if you read the comments on YouTube — which are, granted, mostly the half-literate and profanity-laced ravings of young people — it's painfully clear that many people cannot be convinced by any evidence that a paranormal phenomenon is not real.
And although some prominent crop circle researchers (Colin Andrews among them) do accept that the video is a fake, many do not. Believer web sites assert that top video analysts have proven that the Oliver Castle video cannot have been faked. My favorite among these top analysts is Jim Dilletoso, whom you may remember from Skeptoid episode 41. Dilletoso is one of the most vocal UFO advocates, and claims to have spent six weeks at an underground base for gray aliens outside Dulce, New Mexico. Judge his credibility for yourself.
It is an interesting world we live in, where you can tell a group of people that you made a crop circle with a rope, even show them how you did it, and they still insist that an unknown paranormal intelligence did it. You can tell them that two plus two equals four and they'll insist that it's five, even after you line up four apples for them. You can make a simple hoax video with them sitting at your elbow watching, and they'll conclude the video's real and you're a paid government stooge. And then they'll put their tinfoil helmet back on.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Crop Circle Jerks." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
21 Aug 2007. Web.
8 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4062>
References & Further Reading
Andrews, C., Delgado, P. Circular Evidence: A Detailed Investigation of the Flattened Swirled Crops Phenomenon. London: Bloomsbury, UK, 1989. 1-190.
Branwyn, Gareth. "The Desire to Be Wired." Wired. 1 Sep. 1993, Volume 1, Number 4: 62-65, 113.
Irving, R., Lundberg, J. The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making. London: Strange Attractor Press, 2006.
Lundberg, J. "Case History." Circlemakers. John Lundberg, 12 Oct. 1999. Web. 7 Oct. 2013. <http://www.circlemakers.org/case_history.html>
Nickell, Joe. "Circular Reasoning: The Mystery of Crop Circles and Their Orbs of Light." Commitee for Skeptical Inquiry. Commitee for Skeptical Inquiry, 20 Sep. 2002. Web. 6 Oct. 2009. <http://www.csicop.org/si/show/circular_reasoning_the_mystery_of_crop_circles_and_their_orbs_of_light/>
Ridley, Matt. "Crop Circle Confession." Scientific American. 1 Aug. 2002, Volume 287, Number 2: 25.