5X5 Episode 78

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5X5 Episode 78
Crop Circles
23rd September 2009

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5X5 77 5X5 79
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Crop Circles[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we're talking about crop circles. Now, crop circles are a phenomenon that has been going on, at least in the modern sense that we think of them, since the late 1970s. These are the formation of first simple circles but then more and more complex designs that occur in crop fields—either wheat, corn or barley or whatever—but 90% of the time in England, most of the other time in the English-speaking world, but there have been crop circles described throughout the world. And they have been rather controversial in that there is a set of people who believe that crop circles are either due to some natural phenomenon. Others think that they are a either supernatural phenomenon or the result of alien activity, although the scientific consensus seem to be that they are probably the result of human—either artists or hoaxers, but in any case, that they are nothing more than a man-made phenomenon.

E: Yeah, and even before the phenomenon really struck the attention of people all over the world in the late 20th century, there were a couple of cases prior to that of crop circles being either mentioned or suggested, such as in 1678. There was a English woodcut pamphlet that was published called the Mowing-Devil with an image depicting a demon using a scythe, mowing fields of oats in sort of this oval design. And then there was actually an article published in Nature magazine in 1880, in which they describe something like crop circles being formed as perhaps suggesting at some sort of weather phenomenon—related to some sort of natural phenomenon regarding weather. But like you said, Steve, it was late 20th century, in the 1970s when Doug Bower and Dave Chorley made it a habit to sneak out of their homes at night and take a four-foot plank of wood, attach it to a rope, secure it through their hat that they would wear and walk around, and in about 15 minutes, these guys were able to make a 40-foot circle out of the wheat that they would walk though and the phenomenon really took off from there.

S: Yeah, Evan, you mentioned the historical cases. Now, some of the believers in an alien or supernatural phenomenon cite those as evidence against a modern hoax, but of course, these could be unrelated phenomenon. There is a modern hoax and art form of making circles, whether or not there have been historical cases. But of note, these historical cases, generally speaking, are simple circles, not the complex designs that we see today. And those who have brought those cases together to try to argue for an older heritage for the crop circle phenomenon have not done a good job in terms of the scholarship. Often times these had more prosaic explanations, such as, you know, animals walking in a circle in a field and a crop field with the hoof marks clearly described by the contemporary eyewitnesses, for example. Or they're just very poorly sourced. Essentially, they're trying to bring in anything they can call a crop circle and present it as if it's part of the same phenomenon that we're seeing today, but there really is no reason to think that.

J: Skeptical investigators Joe Nickell and John Fisher, for me, make a very compelling argument that crop circles are hoaxes in a report they wrote a while back called "Circular Reasoning: The 'Mystery' of Crop Circles and Their 'Orbs' of Light"[1]. To make their point, they discuss four key characteristics, very important characteristics of crop circles. One of them is the escalation in frequency. As Steve said earlier, they were first reported in the mid- to late 70s, and from '81-'87, they really started increasing every year—one year after the other, ratcheting up higher and higher. This increase correlated nicely with the media coverage that was happening around the crop-circle phenomenon. The coverage even—the media coverage even seemed to cause even more hoaxes. The second point they make is geographic distribution. It started in Southern England and then seemed to slowly spread to other countries as more and more people became aware of them. And it's important to note that these were primarily at first English-speaking countries. Nickell even describes this as—he describes the crop-circle phenomenon as a media-born virus. The third point is the increasing complexity, as Steve mentioned that earlier as well. They stared as very simple swirled circles, then as time progressed, they became different things, much more complicated things like interlaced spirals, very pretty snowflake designs and even—I've seen some amazing fractals such as a Mandelbrot set, amazingly complex. And the final factor they discuss is the shyness factor. These things just for some reason, which is very compatible with a hoax, nobody really saw these happen or filmed any of this happen. Which leads you to think I mean all four points lead to the same that it's highly, highly likely that these are just hoaxes.

B: It's believed by people, like dowsers, that crop circles actually have an electromagnetic field around where in the area that the crop circle was created or more specifically, where the grass was pushed down. And the other thing I found about crop circles, like Evan mentioned before, that there was natural phenomenon explanations for crop circles, and one of them was actually ball lighting. There are some people that actually believe that ball lightning creates these complicated crop circles, which I thought was ridiculous.

R: Although ball lighting hasn't really been proved to exist. Isn't that right?

E: Yeah, I do find it interesting, though, that in both these cases they're taking something that is not proven to be scientific and use these non-scientific methods of explaining something else that's not scientific. So you're kinda compounding the pseudoscientific aspect of all this.

S: Yeah, using something that's unproven to prove something else that's unproven.

R: Well, you know, there is one other natural way to explain crop circles that doesn't even involve humans. This past summer it was discovered that wallabies that were eating plants in opium fields were getting high and then hopping around in circles, creating what look to be UFO-esque crop circles. And of course, other livestock were as well, like sheep and deer, but it's funnier when the wallabies do it because it's just a funny word.

S: Right; so there could be some natural phenomenon thrown in there into this crop circle phenomenon, creating essentially simple circles. But on top of that, there's no question that there's a man made crop circle hoax or art form going on. The evidence for that is overwhelming and so far, no one has produced any evidence to suggest that there's anything else going on. Proponents, sometimes called "cereologists", will put forward lots of features of circles that they claim make—marks them as legitimate. But what they're just doing is anomaly hunting. They're saying, "oh look at the way the stalks are bent", or sometimes foreign substances are found on the stalks. But they're just looking for anything anomalous or unusual and then declaring that a feature of a genuine circle. But there is no gold standard for "genuine" crop circle or anything that we would think should be a marker of, for example, alien activity. So this anomaly-hunting approach that they take is a key feature of pseudoscience and what we're still left with today is that the simplest and best explanation is that crop circles are simply man-made.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


  1. CSICOP.org: Circular Reasoning: The 'Mystery' of Crop Circles and Their 'Orbs' of Light; Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2002.
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