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Circular Reasoning: The ‘Mystery’ of Crop Circles and Their ‘Orbs’ of Light

Special Report

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 26.5, September / October 2002

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):

  1. An Escalation in Frequency. Although there were sporadic reports of simple circles in earlier times and in various countries (possibly as UFO-landing-spot hoaxes), the classic crop circles began to be reported by the mid 1970s. Data on the circles showed that their number increased annually from 1981-1987, an escalation that seemed to correlate with media coverage of the phenomenon. In fact it appeared that the coverage helped prompt further hoaxes.
  2. Geographic Distribution. The phenomenon showed a decided predilection for a limited geographic area, flourishing in southern England-in Hampshire, Wiltshire, and nearby counties. It was there that the circles effect captured the world’s attention. And, just as the number of circles increased, so their locations spread. After newspaper and television reports on the phenomenon began to increase in the latter 1980s, the formations began to crop up (so to speak) in significant numbers around the world. Indeed the circles effect appeared to be a media-borne “virus.”
  3. Increase in Complexity. A very important characteristic of the patterned-crops phenomenon was the tendency of the configurations to become increasingly elaborate over time. They progressed from simple swirled circles to circles with rings and satellites, to still more complex patterns. In 1987 came a crop message, “WEARENOTALONE” (although skeptics observed that, if the source were indeed English-speaking extraterrestrials, the message should have read “You” rather than “We”). In 1990 came still more complex patterns, dubbed “pictograms.” There were also free-form shapes (e.g., a “tadpole"-like design), a witty crop triangle, and the hilarious bicycle (see Hoggart and Hutchinson 1995, 59).
  4. There also appeared beautifully interlinked spirals, a Menorah, intricate “snowflake” and stylized “spider web” designs, elaborate “Torus Knot” and “Mandala” emblems, pentagram and floral patterns, and other distinctive formations, including an “Origami Hexagram” and several fractals (mathematical designs with a motif subjected to repeated subdivision)-all consistent with the intelligence of modern homo sapiens. At the end of the decade came many designs that included decidedly square and rectilinear shapes, seeming to represent a wry response to the hypothesized swirling “vortex” mechanism.
  5. The Shyness Factor. A fourth characteristic of the cropfield phenomenon is its avoidance of being observed in action. It is largely nocturnal, and the designs even appear to specifically resist being seen, as shown by Operation White Crow. That was an eight-night vigil maintained by about sixty cereologists in June 1989. Not only did no circles appear in the field chosen for surveillance but-although there had already been almost a hundred formations that summer, with yet another 170 or so to occur-not a single circle was reported during the period anywhere in England. Then a large circle-and-ring formation was discovered about 500 yards away on the very next day!

These and other characteristics are entirely consistent with the work of hoaxers. Indeed, as John Fischer and I were about to go to press with our investigative report, in September 1991 two “jovial con men in their sixties” confessed they had been responsible for many of the crop formations made over the years. In support of their claim the men, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, fooled cereologist Pat Delgado. He declared a pattern they had produced for a tabloid to be authentic, insisting it was of a type no hoaxer could have made. The pair utilized a rope-and-plank device to flatten the plants, demonstrating their technique for television crews, e.g., on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America on September 10, 1991 (Nickell and Fischer 1992, 145-148).

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!


I 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.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at