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Crop Circles: A Not-So-Convincing Case

Skeptical Inquiree

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.5, September/October 2014

Q: I wrote a letter to CSI asking them to investigate crop circles to determine if they are a hoax. I looked up crop circles on the web and they state that humans made all crop circles. However, based on the book Crop Circles: Signs, Wonders, and Mysteries I am convinced they were made by aliens; the information on pages 177–179 convinced me of this. Can you help me with an analysis?

—G. Hannye

A: Investigators and research­ers at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry typically can’t accept investigation assignments from the public; we don’t have the staff to fully respond to all the inquiries we get, much less to launch investigations that could take days, weeks, or months.

crop circle with humanoid faceThis crop circle design containing a humanoid face appeared near the Chilbolton Radio Telescope, England, in August 2001.

However, I was intrigued by this claim and agreed to tackle it in the context of a “Skeptical Inquiree” column if I could. I contacted Mr. Hannye and asked for clarification on a few points, including what specifically he found so compelling about these two particular designs. He replied,

First of all what interested me was that there were no indications outside of the crop circles of equipment used to make the crop circles. The two crop circles on page 177 indicate that a reply was made to a binary code sent out in 1974. The crop circle was in the same format as the one we sent out. The second was the crop circle on page 178. That one was a message in binary code and was very complex. . . . The book indicates that crop circles are created in hours and usually between sunset and sunrise.

I began by researching the cases in my library and online. According to the Crop Circles Research Foundation,

The Crop Circle which occurred in wheat crop at Chilbolton, reported on August 19, 2001 was perhaps the most important Genuine Crop Circle which has ever been discovered. The Chilbolton Crop Circle clearly demonstrates that the Sagan/Drake message from humanity which was transmitted into space from the Arecibo radiotelescope in 1974 was intercepted by an ET civilization which then sent to us their reply via the Chilbolton Crop Circle in 2001—27 years later! This occurred despite the fact that it should have required 25,000 years for the Arecibo message to reach the star system at which it was aimed! Clearly, someone “out there” intercepted the message and replied, and the means employed to present this message of reply to us can only be described as nothing less than miraculous. (Crop Circles Research Foundation 2012)

“The most important genuine crop circle . . . ever discovered” that is “nothing less than miraculous”? Intriguing. Though I have a significant skeptical library, including many books on crop circles, the particular title he referenced was not among them. Mr. Hannye kindly offered to send me a copy of the book, and when I got it I turned to the pages that turned him from skeptic to believer. The text reads,

The late summer of 2001 gave us two of the most unusual and controversial crop circles yet. In a field beside the Chilbolton Radio Telescope in Hampshire, two crop formations appeared. . . . The first occurred on 14 August. It was a face inscribed into the crop circle using a dot-matrix methodology. . . . The second formation appeared six days later. It was even more bizarre—an oblong area containing a series of patterns and boxes. It was not long before it was recognized as a representation of the binary code first beamed into space from the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974; however there were a few modifications. The “message” apparently indicated that its creators were silicon-based and smaller than ourselves; they also indicated that they inhabited a binary star system. What are we to make of this and exactly whose is the enigmatic face? (Alexander 2006, 177)

The second crop circle referenced appeared in August 2002 in Hampshire, England. The accompanying text reads,

This astonishing aliens face and disc arrived in a Hampshire field, next to an array of radio masts in a mirroring—of sorts—of the Chilbolton formations ... The disc was found to contain a form of binary code. It was a short message [allegedly reading, “Beware the bearers of false gifts and their broken promises. Much pain but still time. Believe there is good out there. We oppose deception.”] that alluded to the hatred of deception and offered hope for mankind. . . . (Alexander and Alexander 2006, 178)

Crop Circle Theories

Unlike other mysterious phenomena such as psychic powers, ghosts, or Bigfoot, there is no doubt that crop circles are real. The evidence that they exist is clear and overwhelming. The real question is what creates them. Crop circle enthusiasts have come up with many theories about what creates the patterns, ranging from the plausible to the absurd. Many who favor an extraterrestrial explanation claim that aliens physically make the patterns themselves from spaceships. Others suggest that they do it using invisible energy beams from space, saving them the trip down here.

crop circle with stereotypical alienThis crop circle design, containing a stereotypical alien head profile and a coded message, appeared in August 2002 in Hampshire, England.

While there are countless theories, the only known and proven cause of crop circles is humans. Most crop circle researchers admit that the vast majority of crop circles are created by hoaxers. But, they claim, there’s a remaining tiny percentage that they can’t explain. The real problem is that (despite unproven claims by a few researchers that stalks found inside “real” crop circles show unusual characteristics), there is no reliable scientific way to distinguish real crop circles from man-made ones. Using the principle of Occam’s Razor and common sense, the default explanation for crop circles is that they are made by humans—unless good evidence is presented indicating otherwise.

We can look at both internal and external evidence to evaluate these crop circles. Internal information includes the content and meaning of the designs (is there anything that indicates that the information contained in the “messages” is of extraterrestrial origin?), and external information including the physical construction of the crop designs themselves (is there anything that indicates that the designs were created by anything other than humans?).

External Evidence

The external evidence surrounding the Chilbolton and Sparsholt designs is pretty straightforward. Hannye asked about the equipment used to make the designs, and the fact that the circles are made overnight. Of course without identifying the creators and asking them it’s impossible to know for certain what they used, but the most common way is with homemade “stalk stompers” (wooden boards attached to rope) to lay the stalks in one direction. The process is actually pretty straightforward and not nearly as complicated as many people assume. In fact I have personally created crop circle designs, including with Joe Nickell and former colleague Kevin Christopher (see Figure 1); the triple-circle crop pattern I designed and helped create was about 120 feet long by forty feet wide, and took only a few hours from start to finish (see Nickell 2004; Christopher 2002).

CSI team with crop circle making equipmentFigure 1: CSI team Kevin Christopher, Benjamin Radford, and Joe Nickell with their crop circle making equip- ment inside their handiwork. Photo by the author.

Both crop designs exhibit many of the classic signs of hoaxing, including having been created under cover of darkness along tram lines and near public roadways (see Radford 2010). Many crop circle designs show amazing beauty and artistry, and this particular pair is no more or less impressive than hundreds of others. There is nothing in the literature suggesting that the physical construction of the Chilbolton and Sparsholt designs could not have been made by humans or that they are otherwise unexplainable in any way. So, let’s turn to the internal evidence.

Internal Evidence

Is there anything in the designs that suggests nonhuman creation? In fact, the evidence points directly and unmistakably to human creators. The first thing to note about these two particular crop formations is that they both involve human-based faces. The Chilbolton formation resembles something like a close-up portrait of a human, cropped at the top and bottom and thus not showing hair or a neck (nor, for that matter, does it seem to have ears).

The prominence and primacy of the human face is a distinctly human psychological feature. People see faces in clouds, ink stains, reflections, tree trunks, even in tortillas and other food. In fact the human brain is so hardwired to value faces that the facial pattern (two eyes, a nose, and a mouth) is among the first that infants recognize, and there’s even a specific brain disorder called “prosopagnosia” in which people are unable to recognize faces.

There is no reason to think that the psychology of extraterrestrials—who of course may not look anything like us (especially if they are silicon-based, as one of the messages claims)—would give any particular value or significance to the human face. In other words, this supposed alien communication bears all the marks of a distinctly human creator, from its human face to its bordered photograph style, which is aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. The “dot matrix” style (actually a simple grid technique) is also less than convincing since artists such as Chuck Close have worked for years in a similar style. The fact that the Sparsholt image looks exactly like the stereotypical large-headed alien seen in countless movies and television shows (in dramatic half-lit profile no less!) is strong evidence for a human pop-culture influence.

Hannye finds it mysterious that “a reply was made to a binary code sent out in 1974. The crop circle was in the same format as the one we sent out.” Yet this mystery is easily explained if, as all evidence suggests, the crop message was created by humans. Creating a short binary code message doesn’t take a scientist or an extraterrestrial intelligence. If a handful of hoaxers is going to create a crop circle message near a radio telescope that might believably come from aliens, they’re very likely to use the same “language” that was famously used to send a message into space years earlier. Of course in theory any extraterrestrials trying to contact us could have used any Earth language or dialect, from English to Esperanto to Welsh. But using a binary code—and conspicuously in the same form we sent out—was an obvious choice, being both scientific and conforming to crop circle believers’ expectations.

Many crop circle believers and skeptics have dismissed these two designs as preposterous. Bill Hamilton, executive director of Skywatch International, Inc., noted that “The fact that the Chilbolton radio telescope is nearby is an indication that someone in that area was knowledgable about the Arecibo signal and could have contributed information to the (human) circle makers to construct this elaborate hoax to entertain us. . . . If this is an elaborate hoax, think of how humans will go to such incredible lengths to fool other humans” (Hamilton 2001).

But by far the most damning internal evidence against this crop circle’s authenticity is the pseudo-biblical “alien” message itself: “Beware the bearers of false gifts and their broken promises. . . .” Of all the information that an extraterrestrial intelligence might choose to provide to humanity—ranging from how to contact them to engineering secrets of faster-than-light travel—these aliens chose to impart intentionally cryptic messages about false gifts, broken promises, believing in good, and hope for mankind. These ambiguous, faintly reassuring notes are classic examples of messages from pop culture alien “space brothers” that have allegedly contacted humans for decades (for more on this see Lewis 2000 and Bullard 2010).

In sum, all the information about these crop circles indicates a clear human origin. If aliens did indeed create these crop designs, they seem to have done everything in their power to make their work indistinguishable from human hoaxing.


References

Alexander, Steve, and Karen Alexander. 2006. Crop Circles: Signs, Wonders, and Mysteries. Edison, New Jersey: Chartwell Books.

Bullard, Thomas. 2010. The Myth and Mystery of UFOs. Lawrence, Kansas: The University Press of Kansas.

Christopher, Kevin. 2002. CSICOP Field Investigations: 2002 crop circle experiments. Skeptical Briefs (September): 3–5.

Crop Circles Research Foundation. 2012. Communication with extraterrestrials has occurred: The Arecibo message and the Chilbolton reply. December 8. Online at http://cropcirclesresearchfoundation.org/communication-with-extraterrestrials-has-occurred-the-arecibo-message-and-the-chilbolton-reply.

Hamilton, Bill. 2001. Answer to ‘Arecibo’ crop circle: A clever hoax? Online at http://www.rense.com/general13/arc.htm.

Lewis, James. 2000. UFOs and Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Myth. Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO.

Nickell, Joe. 2004. Crop circle capers. Skeptical Briefs (March): 9–10.

Radford, Benjamin. 2010. Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. Corrales, New Mexico: Rhombus Publishing.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford's photo

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Bad Clowns; his next, Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, will be out in Fall 2017.