Circular arguments on crop circles

by Rebecca Priestley / 03 January, 2013
UFOs, secret weapons tests, magnetic vortices – fanciful theories for crop circles abound.
Crop circles

Question: I am fascinated by crop circles, which have been found not only in crops but also in forests in Siberia and on the ice in the Arctic. Please don’t tell me that these were made by “cranks with planks”. The complexity argues otherwise. What is your opinion? – Val Isherwood

Answer:: Google search for crop circles yields millions of results, with elaborate patterns of circles, spirals, fractals and religious symbols shown flattened into fields of grain. Most of the images are on websites hosted by either crop-artists – people who make crop circles – or people who believe the circles are mystical phenomena.

I would love crop circles to be messages from the cosmos or damage caused by UFO landings or secret weapons testing, but there is no evidence to suggest that any of them are – and plenty of evidence that elaborate crop circles can be made by people. And yes, sometimes with planks, though microwaves and GPS are also used.

“You don’t have to posit alien activity to explain crop circles,” says Vicki Hyde, spokesperson for the New Zealand Skeptics Society. “People can do amazing things without extraterrestrial involvement and it devalues the creativity and sheer determination of humanity to try to say they can’t possibly make such things.”

Other theories about crop circles suggest they are made by natural phenomena such as ball lightning, magnetic vortices or fast-acting funguses. Although Hyde sees these explanations as “slightly more plausible”, she says there is no convincing evidence for any of them. “Science works by proposing ideas, testing them, attempting to repeat results independently, identifying mechanisms, making predictions and testing them, and looking for alternative explanations or falsifiability. The various proposals for natural formation get only so far in that process and tend to fizzle out.”

Evidence of crop circles being made by humans, however, is widespread. There are many historical reports of crop circles, but they became a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s, when elaborate circles began appearing in fields in Hampshire, England.

Inspired by talk of UFO sightings in the area, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley started going out at night and crawling around fields on their hands and knees, using a metal bar, or a plank of wood on a rope, to press down the tall stalks of wheat. “I’d always been interested in UFOs and flying saucers,” said Bower in an online interview, “so I thought I’d make it look like one had landed.”

After they revealed their hoax in 1991, crop circles began appearing in fields around the world. The phenomenon has now entered popular culture – inspiring T-shirts, songs, feature films like M Night Shyamalan’s 2002 Signs and endless books, TV shows and investigative specials. But the testimony of fakers hasn’t deterred believers, who continue to connect crop circles to UFOs, 9/11 predictions, the Mayan Apocalypse and alternative healing.

Crop circles continue to appear every year. In the UK, there is a crop circle season – from April to October – that coincides with the annual growth and harvesting of canola, barley, wheat and more recently, corn. In snow-covered landscapes like the Arctic, it’s easy to make patterns in the snow that can be admired from a high point on the landscape. No plank necessary – a pattern can be trudged into fresh snow with a good pair of boots.

So what’s more likely? That the circles are a whimsical art form made by humans with a sense of adventure and humour? Or that they’re made by some as-yet-unnamed force or beings? As Hyde says, “crop circles are a neat art form and you don’t have to presume anything paranormal in order to appreciate them”. I’m with her on this one.

Crop circle artists boast about their craft:

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