A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: crop circles

27 Oct 2002
One of the reasons for the increasing complexity (and number) of crop circles since 1990 could be the access to high performance personal computers and graphic design programs/algorithms. Armed with step-by-step instructions, even amateur hoaxers would be able to create the complex fractal designs (if hey are not doctored photographs) that have wowed croppies, with unprecedented ease and speed.


The following criticisms are from Randall Eades of Danville, Kentucky:

I recently browsed The Skeptic's Dictionary. After scanning several articles in it, I had to conclude that your thinking is no more critical and your reasoning is no more rational than that of a True Believer. You make much of the fact that otherwise brilliant people are "deluded" in their belief in things for which there is little evidence, yet you seem to feel that you are immune to delusions of non-belief in things for which evidence exists.

Reply:I'm not sure I understand what it means to have a "delusion of non-belief in things for which evidence exists," but if you mean that I think I am not susceptible to wishful thinking and self-delusion, then I disagree. I don't, however, believe that I have disbeliefs about things for which there is strong evidence. There may be evidence that supports the belief that crop circles are the intentional designs of intelligent aliens who have chosen to communicate to us by writing Sumerian symbols in wheat fields, but in my view that evidence is pretty weak. The "evidence" is little more than the crop circles themselves and the proffered explanations of those who consider the "complexity of the circles" to be evidence of alien origin. Such "evidence" is on par with von Daniken's "evidence" of alien engineers building pyramids, etc. The complexity of the work indicates aliens were involved. If complexity implied alien origin then I suppose we'd have to say that aliens are behind the U.S. tax code. (Actually, now that I think about it....)

I have neither the time nor the inclination to give you a point-by-point argument, but I'll take three articles that are of particular interest to me.

CROP CIRCLES: In just a couple of lines you curtly dismiss this whole phenomenon as obviously attributable to either natural causes or human hoaxers. For further reading, you suggest only "Crop Circles: A Mystery Solved," by P. Fuller and J. Randles, published in 1990. Considering that the patterns in the crops have dramatically increased in number and complexity since 1990, it would seem that the mystery is far from solved and your thinking less than critical.

If you are truly the rational, critical thinker you claim to be, I suggest you read "Circular Evidence," by Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews, published in 1989. It is a look at the early evidence that avoids much theorizing, and has become a standard reference on the phenomenon. Then you might do a Web search on "crop circles," and look at some of the more recent patterns. If you are going to think critically, you have to look at the evidence. To criticize without looking is the mark of a True Disbeliever.

Reply:If you have a problem with a book written in 1990 because it isn't up to date, why recommend that I read a book written even earlier? In any case, you misunderstand the point of the Skeptic's Dictionary. It was not written to give a "fair" or "unbiased" account of paranormal, occult or supernatural beliefs and theories. It was written to provide references to skeptical material on such topics, as well as to offer a few skeptical thoughts on some of the subjects covered. (The purpose of the book is described in the introduction.) I do not claim to give nor do I intend to give a rational, critical evaluation of topics such as crop circles, etc. You might liken my purpose to that of those pamphlets on smoking in health clinics: the pamphlets don't claim to be open-minded, rational, critical examinations of the pros and cons of smoking; and they certainly don't examine the "evidence" published by the Tobacco Institute. To criticize such pamphlets as being biased or unfair would be to miss the point. My accounts are all biased, i.e., they all take a position. I don't claim to be a clearinghouse for ideas, but a source for skeptical information. The world is full of non-skeptical info on all the topics I take up. The skeptical info is infinitesimal by comparison. If I can be of assistance to someone in finding the skeptical info and skeptical arguments, then I have accomplished my purpose.

Still, thanks for the suggestion to update my bibliography. I found some recent stuff on the net and have added links to them.

You discount the accounts of multiple eyewitnesses as delusions, yet those same eyewitnesses would be credible enough to get you sent to the death chamber in a court of law. Why is their collective eyewitness testimony credible in one circumstance and not in another? Why do they suddenly become delusional when they witness events that don't fit into your paradigm? Is that rational thinking? Or is that just blind faith in a paradigm?

Reply:I wouldn't say that multiple eyewitness testimony is necessarily more credible in murder trials than in such things as mass visions of the Virgin Mary. But evidence in a murder trial may not have to depend solely on the eyewitness testimony: physical evidence and other circumstantial evidence can also be presented to corroborate or challenge the eyewitness testimony.

As far as paradigms go, I do not think that mine is based on blind faith but on experience and knowledge. If I can't find my wallet in the morning I start looking for it, I don't start praying to St. Anthony to help me find it. I don't wonder what the pixies did with it. I don't fear that aliens have picked my pocket. Am I irrational? If a friend comes out of a store with a diamond ring in his pocket that he didn't pay for, I'll ask him why he took it. I don't wonder how the ring got there without his knowledge. I don't wonder why the fairies would play such a mean trick on him. I don't consider that maybe the devil put it there. Am I irrational? If I wake up in the morning and see snow on the ground, I assume it snowed during the night. Am I irrational? After all, snow could be an alien form of communication.

If a priest utters a benediction over a dying patient and the patient recovers, I don't thank God for allowing me to witness a miracle. On the other hand, when the patient dies, I don't blame the priest or God, either. Am I irrational? If a fire destroys someone's home, I don't wonder what evil they did to deserve such a fate; if a person wins the lottery, I don't wonder at what good they've done to deserve such a fate. Is that irrational? If, whenever it suited me, I were to abandon my knowledge and experience of religious fraud, the unpredictability of diseases, and the chances of life, that would be irrational.

If a certain person who has lied to me and deceived me repeatedly, should now ask me to trust him when he tells me that my father is not really my father but is an alien being sent here to spread intergalactic warfare, should I be "open-minded" and "fair" and "unbiased" and give his proposal serious thought and examination before rejecting it? Under your notion of "rational" I would have to ignore my past experience and the general principles of reasonableness that have helped me and billions of others (including yourself, I would say) to live lives that have some semblance of order, continuity and predictability in them.

Do I have faith in my paradigm? You bet. Is it blind faith? I don't think so. Is it irrational? I don't think so.

Perhaps it's time you really earned your Ph.D. in critical thinking. Every summer for the past few years, a couple hundred complex patterns are imprinted into the fields of England. The only relevant question is: Do those patterns, in fact, exist, as reported in "authoritative" news media and captured in hundreds of photographs? Has there been a fantastic hoax pulled on the media, a virus of disinformation run amok on the Information Highway, or do those patterns really exist?

Reply:I think there are other relevant questions, much more relevant and significant than do the crop circles exist. Of course they exist. The question is how did they get there? Some think aliens put them there. I think they are probably the result of human hoaxers.

If they do not exist, if it has all been a hoax of doctored photos and outright lies, your critique is justified and we can all rest easy at night. But if they do exist, and if the photographs are accurate portrayals of them, then you must integrate them into your religion of Science. Tell us how they are made, and why, and by what natural force or hoaxer. Perhaps when you have figured out the trick, you and Mr. Randi can create one on live TV.

Reply:They have been reproduced live on TV, and some of the hoaxers have come forth and admitted to their misdeeds, as you no doubt well know. Even so, no one can rest easy at night because of this. Hoaxers will probably continue to hoax and true believers will continue to set up institutes in Sedona or the U.K. Randi may try to create a crop circle on TV, but I won't. That's not my style. I admire Randi for taking the time and spending the money to do empirical tests of paranormal claims, etc. I'm satisfied with pointing people in Randi's direction. I admit that my goal is rather modest compared to his, but it's the one I've chosen and it suits me fine. While Randi spends a month testing dowsers to see if they can really find water with a stick, I'll work on my golf game or take a hike on a glacier, read his report, and then put a pointer to it in my Skeptic's Dictionary.

26 Jun 1996

I think there is some possibility that small circles might be caused by plasma globes or ball lightning. I think a recent PBS program brought this up as a theory, in addition to hoaxing of course.

--Mike Johnson

Plasma globes or ball lightning? I'll have to look into those topics. You must have watched Arthur C. Clarke. He seemed to like the ball lightning explanation for a lot of stuff.

12 Jul 1996
A point that has been totally overlooked with respect to crop circles is the artistic merit in the design of many of them. Whatever is causing them -- and I neither support nor refute any explanation of them -- is producing designs of great artistic merit. Some are much better than others (from an artistic perspective) and some are absolutely brilliant.

reply: It's been said before, but it bears repeating: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some urban graffiti has artistic merit, also. To the farmers whose fields are being carved up, crop circles are little more than rural graffiti, though it can't be denied that some of these designs are very clever, well executed, clear and rich with deep symbolic meaning and worthy of a much higher place in the New World Order.

The merit of these designs has been totally squashed flat by the arguments between the Skeptics and the Believers. This is a pity. I just wish people would enjoy them and not get so flustered.

reply: I've been working on my fluster ratio. Any tips on how to decrease flustering are greatly appreciated. I've been working on developing my aesthetic sense ever since I read Kant's Critique of Judgment in second grade, but maintaining disinterestedness while perceiving graffiti is still hard for me.

If circumstances were different, and the artist who created these designs were publicly recognized, I'd hope that there would be a Nobel prize for art created and bestowed on them.

reply: Nobel prize for crop circle art? What category would that be under? Cereal design? Interpersonal Communication?

If these designs were generated by natural forces such as whirlwinds or armies of ants, then Wow! If they were created by aliens, then those aliens appear to be consummate artists.

reply: Armies of ants? Now that's an hypothesis I hadn't heard before. You may be on your way to a Nobel Prize yourself, for Creative Explanation! As to the aliens being consummate artists, I'm afraid you were beaten to the punch on that claim by von Daniken and others who tell us that the aliens have been here from the beginning of human civilizations and taught our ancestors everything they know about art and architecture.

I really DON'T CARE though. They are *NEAT*. That's all.
--Stephen Wray

reply: They're not only 'neat', they're 'swell.' And 'tidy', too.

23 Apr 1997
I do believe that most of the circles found in England (i.e those with symbols & patterns) are the result of hoaxers. However, I thinks some of the smaller ones are the result of a type of "whirl wind" or mini-tornado. In 1990 I was traveling in England with a college group when myself & two other group members witnessed a circle being formed. We saw grains of wheat being spun around in the air in a counter clock-wise rotation in an area of  around 6 feet in width. This was on a very hot day in mid-afternoon. That's the whole of the story, didn't see any space aliens, or a UFO or a plasma vortex for that matter. I can assure you that the three of us who saw this are all very rational members of society. I myself am a Police 911 Operator & the other two are a hospital E.R. nurse & a college instructor.

Jan Bassett Dallas,Tx

4 Jun 1997
As for the crop circles being formed by man, I can easily believe it in the case of poorly done circles like --


But in the more elaborate circles like --


I find it harder to believe that someone could make something that elaborate without leaving plenty of signs behind that they did it. Since there are people to claim that they created the crop circles, I would like to see them duplicate one of these nice patterns at night without leaving a trace.

The idea that some swirling windstorm could form patterns like these is personally even harder to accept than human action. I would assume that there should be half-formed and mangled circles all over the place where the weather patterns were not quite right to do a nice circle. Besides, how could the wind do the lines like some have?

But all these doubts do not make me an automatic believer in UFOs sweeping down and playing Etch A Sketch with the crops. I see crop circles as good fodder for late-night bull sessions, but not much more. I'll just have to keep a skeptical eye on the whole thing until definite proof steps forth.

Curtis Houghton

reply: No doubt intelligent creatures made the design at Windmill Hill in Wiltshire. Who do you think is more likely to have done this without leaving plenty of signs behind that they did it: aliens in spacecraft or humans on foot?

Curtis Houghton's reply:
I agree that an intelligent (but probably whimsical) mind was behind the Windmill Hill crop circle. And if the people responsible for that crop circle would identify themselves, I'd love to have them come over to the US and do a few on my land. This offer does not apply to aliens unless they can get their own visas and make sure their UFOs pass the proper emissions checks.

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