2002 CSICOP Crop Circles Experiments
August 15, 2002
"Signs," starring Mel Gibson, is Hollywood's latest attempt to cash in on the allure of the paranormal. The film, distributed by Disney's Touchstone Pictures, opened in American theaters on August 2, 2002. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who brought audiences the haunting spiritualistic thriller "The Sixth Sense" (1999), "Signs" tells the story of Pennsylvania pastor Graham Hess (Gibson), who turns to farming as a way to escape his theological doubts following the death of his wife in a car accident. Hess is thrown into the media spotlight when 500-foot crop circles suddenly begin appearing in his fields.
Several months ago, Skeptical Inquirer Managing Editor Benjamin Radford, who moonlights as a film reviewer, sent a memo to CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell and me warning us that "Signs" would likely generate a huge interest in crop circles among the media. True to his prediction, the media have been falling over themselves to discuss this paranormal topic now that it is the centerpiece of Shyamalan's hopeful summer blockbuster. For once, surprisingly, they have proved overwhelmingly sympathetic to skeptical explanations of the crop circle phenomenon.
Over the past three weeks Joe Nickell, Benjamin Radford and I have produced two experimental crop circles in Upstate New York. The first experiment was conducted on Wednesday, July 31, 2002, in Amherst, New York, in a large field of dry wild grass. The tools employed were a long piece of rope and one "stalk stomper." The stomper is a board approximately 4 feet (1.3 m) long with two holes drilled at each end. A thick piece of rope was run through the holes and knotted to make a handle. Staffer Vance Vigrass modeled the stomper on similar devices used by British circle hoaxers Doug Bower and Dave Chorley.
We created a single 50-ft. (17 m) diameter circle in the field grass as a demonstration for a CNBC television crew that was interviewing Nickell about crop circles. Nickell's interview aired on the Friday, August 2, edition of "The News with Brian Williams." The rope was used to measure out a 25-foot (8.5 m) radius. Joe Nickell stood at the center of the circle and Ben Radford held the other end, slowly walking the circumference while I used the stomper to press down the circle's outline. The three of us then took turns pressing down the inside of the circle.
Above: Joe Nickell labors in the field.
Above: Benjamin Radford labors in the field.
Above: Kevin Christopher labors in the field.
Above: The finished crop circle.
This first experiment revealed the fact that field grass is an altogether unsuitable medium for making crop circles. The stalks proved to be too resilient. We spent more than two hours pressing down the grass to our satisfaction with the stalk stomper. Though the resulting circle proved to be satisfactory for a short CNBC news segment, we felt that another trial in an actual crop was needed.
Joe Nickell was intrigued by the fact that the production crew for "Signs" had used grain fields in Steuben County, New York, to make crop circles. In the course of his research he found and contacted the local farmer who had helped the "Signs" production crew find fields for staging crop circles, Phil Bennett. Bennett agreed to let CSICOP trample an area in his oat crop for another experiment.
Thus, our second experiment was conducted on Friday, August 9, 2002, in a field of ripe oats on Bennett's farm, south of the city of Rochester. We descended on the farm with three stalk stompers, a length of rope and camera and video equipment.
During this trial the oat stalks proved to be far more cooperative, falling downand staying downafter the first pass with our stalk stompers. The three of us spent more time deciding on the actual location for the circle in the field, picking vantage points for video and photographs, and documenting the process, than actually laboring in the oats. The design consisted of a main circle, surrounded by a ring. We then made a second, smaller circle, which intersected the edge of the ring. The two circles made a pattern totaling 110 feet (36 m) in length, and 80 feet (27 m) in width.
Above: Kevin Christopher and Joe Nickell standing in freshly finished main circle.
Above: Joe Nickell and Benjamin Radford using line and stomper to make the outer ring of the Steuben County crop circle.
Above: The trio poses in the middle of their handiwork (left to right: Kevin Christopher, Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell).
Above: The finished crop circle made in Steuben County, New York. From left to right, the pattern measures 100 feet (33 m)
Above: This photo captures an unidentified being making a crop circle. Is this being an extraterrestrial or Joe Nickell in a costume? You decide.
Above: Ben Radford's diagram of the Steuben County Circle.
Skeptics have long known how a small group of hoaxers can easily produce a crop circle. The two circles we made in recent weeks are valuable hands-on experiments that take CSICOP beyond the realm of mere armchair debunking. We learned that domestic grains like oats are better than wild grasses. We also better understood just how quickly patterns can be made with simple implementsall of which can be carried over one's shoulder and in a backpack. The tools necessary to survey the geometry are no more complicated than a length of rope. (We used a tape measure, but that could easily be eliminated by marking certain lengths on a rope with colored tape.) Finally, after trampling down both crop circles on hot summer days, we recognized yet another reason for performing such hoaxes in the cool of the night with flashlights.
[ SI ]