Crop Circles: Valid Research?

Those of you who have been skeptics and good critical thinkers for any stretch of time know that when it comes to outrageous and unsubstantiated claims, there is very little under the sun that is new.

Oh, there may be variations on old claims and the occasional re-packaging of defunct arguments, but for the most part, the Bare Naked Ladies had it right when they sang “It’s all been done before.”

And after you’ve heard the same claims and arguments so many times, and after you’ve responded to those claims and arguments in the same way so many times, it becomes more and more difficult to stay interested.

In fact, I would wager that for many of us, there comes a point where we have to find creative ways to look at these old subjects, just to keep from becoming suicidal with boredom. I know I’m sick to death of discussing cold reading techniques, the ideomotor effect, the weakness of anecdotal evidence, assigning meaning to predictions after the fact, the non-existence of active ingredients in homeopathic solutions, sleep paralysis, etc., etc.

At the same time, however, I know the importance of thinking critically in order to learn about the world around us, and I never want to step entirely out of the loop, no matter how bored I get. So, I will often take any opportunity I can to make skepticism more fun, if only for me personally.

For example, recently, I read a couple of news stories about crop circles, and decided to have some fun with the topic by tying everything into the movie A Field of Dreams. Though neglecting to go into much detail, I did present the established arguments from both sides (skeptic and believer) first, but I quickly let my imagination take control, and the post became what it is today. I formulated a crazy scenario where aliens from outer space and the ghosts of dead baseball players are at war, and crop circles are the evidence of their ongoing conflict.

Well, after I posted my silly new take on crop circles, some fellow calling himself “Vince” emailed Skepchick, and had this to say:

Who’s the idiot who done [sic] the write up on crop circles?

There is clear scientific evidence that proves that some can’t be made by humans. You should really do actual research. First of all, a genuine crop circle has magnetic properties, has exploded nodes caused by extreme heat and also has particles of iron within the plans [sic] expulsion cavities. Something that no plank of wood and rope can accomplish.

If you want to step out of your comfort zone and read some hard data, then go here.

Realising that not all crop circles are man made is just too much for people with simple brains to comprehend.

Apparently, realizing that each contributor’s name is listed right next to each post is also just too much for people with simple brains to comprehend. Apparently, realizing the entire Earth has magnetic properties is just too much for people with simple brains to comprehend. And apparently, realizing that when healthy, water-rich plants are pushed over and exposed to the sun, the heat is sufficient to “explode” nodes and crack stalks is just too much for people with simple brains to comprehend.

But I digress.

At least old Vince included a link to a research website, and wasn’t just spewing his Nancy-boy venom for no reason. In fact, as I clicked on it (as you should), I was a little excited because I thought there might actually be something new under the crop circle sun. I mean, here was BLT— an incorporated research team created by Michigan biophysicist W.C. Levengood! These folks didn’t seem like just some blokes from the neighborhood futzing about because it was a good excuse to get away from the wife and kids for an afternoon. It looked as though there was good, sciency stuff going on.

When I began to read deeper, however, I was disappointed to find that my excitement was unwarranted. With each paragraph, everything seemed more familiar to me. I couldn’t immediately place the names and the arguments, but they were all ringing some pretty loud bells. And then when I read the published papers, I remembered that I had not only heard of the principal players before, but I had also read the papers before. Not only that, but I had a nagging feeling I had even read unfavorable critiques of the papers before.

In the papers, W. C. Levengood and company basically claim to show that plants from crop formations display anatomical alterations that cannot be accounted for by assuming the formations are hoaxes. The research papers also leap to the claim that plasma vortices descending to the Earth’s surface and interacting with the vegetation are actually responsible for the formations, the majority of which are highly geometrical and artistic in appearance.

So I did a little Googling, and sure enough, our good friend from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,Joe Nickell, had commented on at least one of the papers as early as 1996.

Nickell immediately points out a major problem with Levengood — a pupil of the Terence Meaden school of ion-plasma-vortex crop circle thought — and his research. Says Nickell:

The question of bias [during the research experiments] is important since Levengood’s attitudes and assumptions reveal him as a partisan crop-circle “believer” of the Terence Meaden . . . variety.

So Levengood’s bias toward the idea of plasma vortices was well documented before the trials and experiments began. He seemed to remain a staunch believer in the ionic anomalies even as Meaden himself was slowly being forced to re-think the subject.

Alas, Meaden-who wrote several articles and books advocating the vortex hypothesis-was increasingly forced to conclude that great numbers of crop circles, especially the elaborate pictograms, were produced by hoaxers, and he reportedly abandoned interest in the subject.

In addition to that, Levengood’s own colleague at BLT, John A. Burke, has remained particularly defiant about alleged hoaxers, ignoring evidence that suggests most, if not all, crop patterns are man made.

Now for the casual, skeptical observer to be thorough, he or she must factor in the apparent biases of the BLT researchers when examining their claims and evaluating what they propose the evidence says about crop circles. Further, one must note that there is no satisfactory evidence that a single vortex-produced crop circle exists.

Plus there is the thought process of the researchers to take into account. In Levengood’s mind, even though there is no evidence that any circle was ever created by plasma vortices, there are no crop circles made by hoaxers either.

As Nickell rightly points out, 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 Levengood’s work were really valid, he would be expected to find that some among the putatively “genuine” formations chosen for research were actually hoaxed ones-especially since even some of Meaden’s most ardent defenders admit there are more hoaxed circles than “genuine” ones.

In fact, evidence came to light that a major crop formation called the Mandelbrot formation, which Levengood believed genuine and which he used as a basis for theoretical discussion, was actually the work of hoaxers.

Right away, one can see a problem with BLT’s approach.

Still, these papers and critiques arose many years ago. The latest of Levengood’s work on crop circles is nearly a decade old. So I wondered, “Do they have anything new to add to the discussion?”

Well, it doesn’t appear so.

The research at BLT seems to have dried up since the late 1990s. I contacted Nancy Talbott, the only contact listed on the BLT website, and one of the research fellows, and asked her about the current environment of crop circle research there. She had this to say:

Until one understands the phenomenon well enough to be able to reproduce it the job’s not done. . .

A little vague, but I guess we can’t blame her. Talbott says there have been no scientific papers published by BLT researchers since 1999, and even hints that Levengood has abandoned the work.

Levengood has not been involved with BLT efforts for 6-7 years now and, last I heard, was working on “subtle energies.”

The short of it is, I’m glad that Skepchick readers take the time to research topics to absorb as much information as they can, even if they do think me an idiot, for whatever reason. But in the end, when it comes to crop circles, there is just nothing new under the sun.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I just started reading your blog, so perhaps it has been a bad week. I was not aware that name calling was a form of critical thinking. I was not aware that a person bias is evidence of failures in their findings. Certainly it is grounds for closer examination, but evidence in and of itself? I see your blog as another example of “a free and open exchange of your ideas”.

    BTW, for the record I am not interested in crop circles whatever their origins.

    Pat O

  2. Once again, there are no such things as hoax crop circles, only circles (and patterns) made by people and falsely attributed to ‘vortexes’ and aliens from outer space by other people. You cannot hoax something that isn’t genuine in the first place.

    A person making a crop circle with normal everyday tools IS making a genuine crop circle.

  3. Absolutely agreed with anyvainlegend.

    Moreover, it’s highly insulting to these mostly unsung installation artists of the agricultural world to call their work “hoaxes”. Almost as insulting as it is to claim that no human could have done it.

  4. Do the ‘Aliens did it!!’ folk never stop to wonder, even for a brief moment, why any supposedly advanced intelligences would bother trying to communicate by a method that leaves its few human believers largely as objects of ridicule?

    It’d be as dumb as all-seeing all-knowing spirits of dead people trying to communicate through ‘mediums’ who have been documented as cheats or incompetents.
    Or a deity who wanted to be widely worshipped inspiring someone to start yet another damn spin-off sect from a larger religion.
    Or aliens interested in human anatomy kidnapping numerous people for brief rectal probing sessions rather than just acquiring some medical books, or bugging a medical college, or kidnapping a doctor…

    Even if someone originally really believed crop circles were some kind of half-arsed E.T. attempt at communication, surely by now they’d be thinking
    Oh, for £&^%’s sake – just send everyone an email or text message, or take over a TV satellite or something!“?

  5. I understand but do not buy the idea that it is wrong to call crop circles hoaxed. From the very beginning that is precisely what they were – people making crop circles hoping other people would attribute them to something else.

    Later on in the modern era of the phenomenon, after Doug & Dave outed themselves as hoaxers, others filled the gap ( They report becoming increasingly annoyed by self-important self-assigned crop circle ‘experts’ making declarations of genuineness, making wild-ass assumptions of earth-mother ‘energies’, fighting each other over the media spotlight, and making money at it wherever possible. So, this new crop (heh) of circlemakers made circles that simply couldn’t have been produced by natural forces and delighted in waiting for the ‘experts’ to declare a given circle genuine so they could then reveal its manmade origins, revealing the idiocy of these ‘experts’. The ensuing free-for-alls of argument were reported breathlessly by a delighted media. This is hoaxing, plain and simple, and a whole lot of fun -as I found by helping a crew of NC State University engineering students hoax some crop circles locally in the early 1990s.

    By the late 1990s the phenomenon had matured to the point where circle makers were and are still contracted by ad agencies and others (all quite human) to produce circles for advertising and marketing purposes, plus the standard circle hoaxing continues as one group tries to outdo the others.

    While I consider it a new art fom, a sort of agricultural graffiti, and fully appreciate the beauty especially as factored against the difficulties involved, it is by no means a practice that is done in the wide open and others are just assigning errant meanings in accordance with their respective outre beliefs – the circle makers strive for that very effect. That’s hoaxing.

    Personally, I don’t consider hoaxing to be a dirty word or practice. I’ve very often sailed a lighted vehicle over a crowd at night just to measure the reaction, plus the 3-4 crop circles I helped with 16 years ago. The results were roughly the same every time: About 3/4 of the witnesses know immediately it isn’t anything noteworthy in terms of UFOs, etc., and some actually come up with the approximate
    mechanics employed. A few seem to shrug their shoulders, not knowing nor caring what it is. But their is always a number, maybe 5%, who attribute all manner of silly explanations for what they believe they saw, with “real UFO” being the most common. “Real UFO” is believer code for “alien space ship”. Guess which set of witnesses gets their interviews by media printed? Guess which group tells everyone they know and comes back the next night for more, ensuring that each following night has a higher percentage of UFO believers? That is how UFO “flaps” are created.

  6. I guess the distinction that I make in m y mind is that a hoaxer tries to persuade you of something that’s false. If they say nothing but just let you believe it, that’s not a hoax.

    BTW, there are indeed some amazing circles on that site. Thanks for the link.

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