Center for Inquiry
: Skeptical Inquirer magazine
: September/October 2002 : Buy this back issue
Circular Reasoning: The 'Mystery' of Crop Circles and Their 'Orbs' of Light
Since they began to capture media attention in the mid 1970s, and to proliferate and evolve through the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, crop circles have provided mystery and controversy. New books, touting "scientific research," continue the trend. The topic is also getting a boost from a new Hollywood movie, Signs, starring Mel Gibson as a Pennsylvania farmer who discovers a 500-foot design imprinted in his crops and seeks to learn its meaning.
At issue are swirled, often circular designs pressed into crop fields, especially those of southern England. They can range from small circles only a few feet in diameter to elaborate "pictograms," some now as large as a few hundred feet across. By the end of the 1980s books on the crop circle phenomenon had begun to spring up as well, and soon circles-mystery enthusiasts were being dubbed cereologists (after Ceres, the Roman goddess of vegetation). Circlemania was in full bloom (Delgado and Andrews 1989; Nickell and Fischer 1992; Schnabel 1994).
Most cereologists-a.k.a. "croppies" (Hoggart and Hutchinson 1995)-believed the circular designs were being produced either by extraterrestrials or by hypothesized "plasma vortices," supposedly "small, local whirlwinds of ionized air" (Haselhoff 2001, 5-6). A few took a more mystical approach. When I visited the vast wheat crops of the picturesque Wiltshire countryside in 1994, at one formation a local dowser told me he believed the swirled patterns were produced by spirits of the earth (Nickell 1995).
Hoaxers, most croppies insisted, could not be responsible because the plants were only bent and not broken, and there were no footprints or other traces of human activity. Skeptics replied that from mid-May to early August the English wheat was green and pliable, and could only be broken with difficulty. As to the absence of tracks, they were precluded by de facto footpaths in the form of the tractor "tramlines" that mark the fields in closely spaced, parallel rows (Nickell and Fischer 1992).
Investigation into the circles mystery indicated that it might be profitable to look not just at individual formations but at the overall phenomenon (rather on the old principle that one may fail to see the forest for the trees). Forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I soon identified several characteristics that suggested the work of hoaxers (Nickell and Fischer 1992):
Cereologists were forced to concede that hoaxers were producing elaborate designs and that "there are many ways to make a hoaxed crop circle" (Haselhoff 2001, 34). (For example, some who go 'round in circles use a garden roller to flatten the plants [Hoggart and Hutchinson 1995].) While in the past some cereologists thought they could distinguish "real" from fake circles by dowsing (Nickell 1995), the more cautious now admit it is not an easy matter, "certainly not as long as we do not even know exactly what mechanism creates crop circles" (Haselhoff 2001, 34).
Nevertheless the croppies were sure that some of the formations must be genuine, citing various "unexplained" features. More recently they invoked new "scientific" evidence in that regard, such as that provided by "the BLT Research Team" in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The "B" and "T" are circle "researchers" and "L" is a semi-retired biophysicist, W.C. Levengood. He finds a correlation between certain deformities in plants and their locations within crop-circle-type formations, but not control plants outside them (Levengood and Talbott 1999). However, correlation is not causation, and there are other objections to his work (Nickell 1996a). As well, more mundane hypotheses for the effects-for instance, compressed moist plants steaming in the hot sun-appear to have been insufficiently considered.
Crucially, since there is no satisfactory evidence that a single "genuine" (i.e., "vortex"-produced) crop circle exists, Levengood's reasoning is circular: although there are no guaranteed genuine formations on which to conduct research, the research supposedly proves the genuineness of the formations. But if the work were really valid, Levengood would be expected to find that a high percentage of the crop circles chosen for research were actually hoaxed, especially since even many ardent cereologists admit there are more hoaxed than "genuine" ones (Nickell 1996a; Nickell and Fischer 1992). For example, prominent cereologist Colin Andrews (2001) has conceded that 80 percent of the British crop circles are manmade; yet Levengood claims his research "suggests that over 95 percent of worldwide crop formations involve organized ion plasma vortices . . ." (Levengood and Talbott 1999).
Levengood and others who postulate crop-stamping, ion plasma vortices have to face the fact that those remain unrecognized by science. They owe their imagined existence to George Terence Meaden, a former professor of physics who took up meteorology as an avocation. His book The Circles Effect and Its Mysteries (1989) is still revered by many cereologists. Alas, however, he merely attempted to "explain" a mystery by creating another, and-humiliated by hoaxers-eventually retired from the scene, conceding that all of the complex designs were fakes (Hoggart and Hutchinson 1995, 59).
Nevertheless, many circles aficionados have begun to photograph supposed vortex effects which, curiously, resemble some of the same photographic anomalies that are the stock-in-trade of ghost hunters. For example, in her Mysterious Lights and Crop Circles, credulous journalist Linda Moulton Howe (2000, 137, 255) exhibits a flash photo taken in a crop circle that shows a bright "mysterious arch with internal structure that seems to spiral like a plasma." Unfortunately for Howe (erstwhile promoter of cattle mutilations and similar "mysteries"), the effect is indistinguishable from that caused by the camera's unsecured wrist strap reflecting the flash (Nickell 1996b). As corroborative evidence of this mundane cause, the bright strand-like shapes typically go unseen by the ghosthunter or cereologist, only appearing in their snapshots.
Again, Howe (2000, 169-176) shows several photos containing "transparent spheres" that the croppies call "energy balls," "light orbs," "atmospheric plasmas," etc. They are indistinguishable from "orbs" of "spirit energy" typically seen in photographs of graveyards and other "haunted" places and that sometimes appear in snapshots as UFOs. Skeptics have demonstrated that these globelike effects can be produced by particles of dust, water droplets, and the like reflecting the flash (Mosbleck 1988; Nickell 1994; Burton 1999). Other simulators of paranormal "energy" in photos include lens flares (the result of interreflection between lens surfaces), bugs and debris reflecting the flash, and many other causes, including film defects and hoaxes (Nickell 1994).
Sometimes, however, "hovering balls of light" and other "energy" effects are reported by eyewitnesses, though not only in the vicinity of crop circles (Haselhoff 2001; Howe 2000). These too may have a variety of causes including pranksters' parachute flares ("Flares" 1999), various misperceived aerial craft and other phenomena (such as ball lightning), false claims, hallucinations, etc. In some instances, small lights observed moving about cropfields at night might have come from the flashlights of the circle makers!
It appears that for the foreseeable future the crop-circle phenomenon will continue. At least it has moved from the level of mere hoaxing-"a form of graffiti on the blank wall of southern England" (Johnson 1991)-to represent an impressive genre of outdoor art. The often breathtaking designs (best seen in aerial photographs, like the giant Nazca drawings in Perú) are appreciated not only by the mystery mongers but by skeptics as well. Indeed as reliably reported (Hoggart and Hutchinson 1995), skeptics have helped to make many of them!
AcknowledgmentsI am indebted to CFI staff-especially Tim Binga, Kevin Christopher, Benjamin Radford, and Ranjit Sandhu-for helping in various ways to make this report possible.
ReferencesAndrews, Colin. 2001. Cited in Haselhoff 2001, 37-38.
Burton, Garry. 1999. Welcome to 'Orb World.' members.aol.com/Analogsys/index2.html.
Delgado, Pat, and Colin Andrews. 1989. Circular Evidence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Phanes Press.
Flares spark reports of UFOs. 1999. Cornish Guardian, August 19 (quoted in Howe 2000, 166-167).
Haselhoff, Eltjo H. 2001. The Deepening Complexity of Crop Circles. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd.
Hoggart, Simon, and Mike Hutchinson. 1995. Bizarre Beliefs. London: Richard Cohen Books, 52-61.
Howe, Linda Moulton. 2000. Mysterious Lights and Crop Circles. New Orleans, La.: Paper Chase Press.
Johnson, Jerold R. 1991. Pretty pictures. MUFON UFO Journal, 275: 18, March.
Levengood, W. C. and Nancy P. Talbott. 1999. Dispersion of energies in worldwide crop formations. Physiologia Plantarum 105: 615-624.
Meaden, George Terence. 1989. The Circles Effect and Its Mystery. Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire: Artetech.
Mosbleck, Gerald. 1988. The elusive photographic evidence, in Spencer and Evans 1988, 210.
Nickell, Joe. 1994. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky.
---. 1995. Crop circle mania wanes. Skeptical Inquirer 19:3 (May/June), 41-43.
---. 1996a. Levengood's crop-circle plant research. Skeptical Briefs 6:2 (June), 1-2.
---. 1996b. Ghostly photos. Skeptical Inquirer 20:4 (July/August), 13-14.
Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. 1992. The crop-circle phenomenon: an investigative report. Skeptical Inquirer 16:2 (Winter), 136-149.
Schnabel, Jim. 1994. Round in Circles. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Spencer, John, and Hilary Evans, eds. 1988. Phenomenon: Forty Years of Flying Saucers. New York: Avon.
See AlsoSigns DVD
Crop circle demonstration (video)
Real-life X-files (Chapter 10: Riddle of the Circles)
Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical and Forensic Enigmas (Chapter 11: The Crop Circle Phenomenon)
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