CSICOP Crop Circles Report
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2002 CSICOP Crop Circles Experiments

Kevin Christopher
CSICOP Public Relations Director

August 15, 2002

Signs

"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.

Joe Nickell with stalk stomper

Above: Joe Nickell labors in the field.

Benjamin Radford with stalk stomper

Above: Benjamin Radford labors in the field.

Kevin Christopher with stalk stomper

Above: Kevin Christopher labors in the field.

Amherst, N.Y. crop circle

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 down—and staying down—after 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.

Kevin Christopher and Joe Nickell standing in freshly finished main circle.

Above: Kevin Christopher and Joe Nickell standing in freshly finished main circle.

Joe Nickell and Benjamin Radford use line and stomper to make outer ring.

Above: Joe Nickell and Benjamin Radford using line and stomper to make the outer ring of the Steuben County crop circle.

Trio poses in the midst of handiwork.

Above: The trio poses in the middle of their handiwork (left to right: Kevin Christopher, Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell).

Steuben County crop circle

Above: The finished crop circle made in Steuben County, New York. From left to right, the pattern measures 100 feet (33 m)

alien in the field

Above: This photo captures an unidentified being making a crop circle. Is this being an extraterrestrial or Joe Nickell in a costume? You decide.

sketch of Steuben circle by Ben Radford

Above: Ben Radford's diagram of the Steuben County Circle.
©2002 Benjamin Radford

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 implements—all 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 ]

Skeptics & Crop Circles

Crop circles—strange geometric patterns of matted-down grain stalks—began garnering media attention in the late 1970s when they cropped up in English wheat fields. They evolved into a world-famous phenomenon in the 1980s and 90s, sparking plenty of controversy—and pseudoscience—regarding their origins. Credulous crop circles researchers—known as "cereologists" or "croppies"—believe that either extraterrestrials or "plasma vortices" are responsible for the phenomenon. Cereologists have argued that hoaxers could not be responsible for crop circles, because the grain stalks are bent and not broken, and there were no traces of footprints leading to scenes. Skeptics, including Joe Nickell, who is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), have replied that from mid-May to August, wheat is naturally green and pliable—so it is no mystery that the stalks pressed down to make crop circles are not broken. Furthermore, the tramlines left by tractors divide wheat fields into closely spaced parallel rows. Hoaxers can easily walk the tramlines without leaving tracks or disturbed grain in their wake.

In the early 1990s, Joe Nickell teamed up with forensic analyst John F. Fischer to research the entire crop circle phenomenon over previous decades. They found all of the hallmarks of hoaxers at work. "The escalation in appearances correlated directly with the increase in media coverage," says Nickell. "For years the phenomenon was concentrated in southern England. Only after media reports spread internationally did crop circles begin to appear in significant numbers elsewhere." Nickell also points to the fact that crop circles became more elaborate over time—evidence of hoaxers demonstrating increasing mastery of their art. Finally, there's what Nickell calls the "Shyness Factor": like graffiti artists, whoever makes crop circles does not want to be seen in action.

Nickell and Fischer were vindicated in 1991—just before they published an investigative report in Skeptical Inquirer magazine ("The Crop Circle Phenomenon: An Investigative Report", Vol. 16, No. 2, Winter 1992)—when crop circle hoaxers Doug Bower and Dave Chorley came forward and subsequently fooled cereologist Pat Delgado, who had declared an example of their handiwork to be beyond any hoaxer's ability. Since then, many other people have admitted to making the designs as well.

[ SI ]

Look for Joe Nickell's new Investigative Report on Crop Circles in the upcoming September/October 2002 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Crop Circles & the News

In anticipation of the new Hollywood movie, "Signs," CSICOP was on a marathon crop circle media blitz. Below are print and TV media interviews of CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell. Some links will unfortunately become defunct as time passes.

U.S. NATIONAL TELEVISION:

August 2, 2002
CNBC
"The News with Brian Williams" 7:00 PM EDT (GMT - 4 hr)
Joe Nickell interviewed on crop circles. Joe, Ben Radford and Kevin Christopher demonstrate the techniques to create crop circles.

NEWSPAPER CROP-CIRCLE MEDIA BLITZ: (Boston, Indianapolis, New York, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, New Jersey State, National)

July 28, 2002
New York Daily News
"HARVESTING A HOAX: The new movie 'Signs' exploits the corny crop-circle phenomenon"
by Jami Bernard
(FEE for FULL ARTICLE)

August 1, 2002
Boston Globe
"CIRCULAR LOGIC: CROP FORMATIONS MAY BE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY, BUT THE MEDIA ARE BETTING THEY'LL MAKE SENSE AT THE CASH REGISTER"
by Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff

August 1, 2002
Indianapolis Star
"Mystery or mischief? Crop circle phenomenon preys on our imagination."
By John J. Shaughnessy

August 1, 2002
Salt Lake Tribune
"Film Opening Triggers Memories of Utah's Crop Circles"
By Vince Horiuchi

August 1, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle
"Cereal spin doctors Crop circles: Precursors to a close encounter with ET or merely catering to the public's appetite for 'occult metaphors'?"
by Rick DelVecchio SF Chronicle Staff Writer

August 2, 2002
MSNBC.com
"It’s harvest time for crop-circle hype"
by Alan Boyle

August 2, 2002
Denver Post
"Circular argument crops up yet again Skeptics, believers continue debate"
By Michael Booth, Denver Post Staff Writer

Crop Circles Links

Skeptical Inquirer, June 1996
Investigative Files:
Levengood's Crop-Circle Plant Research
Joe Nickell

The Young Skeptics Program
CSICOP's Library & Research Center
"Crop Circles"
Amanda Chesworth

The Skeptic's Dictionary
skepdic.com
"Crop Circles"
Bob Carroll

Circlemakers
http://www.circlemakers.org
Web site of UK circlemakers

Make Contact

e-mail

Credits

Content:
Kevin Christopher

Field Investigation:
Joe Nickell
Kevin Christopher
Benjamin Radford

Editing/Proofreading:
Benjamin Radford

Page Design:
Kevin Christopher

Photography:
Benjamin Radford

©2002 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal