Crop Circles and the Media

CC - life is sweet

One of the fastest ways to become an object of ridicule in the media is to try and address the crop circle phenomenon seriously.  What’s surprising to me is that it’s not just the news shows with their 20-second sound bite limitations that go out of their way to make fun of the issue; the well-respected organizations that lay claim to rational and science-based approaches do the same.  It’s not the disdain that bothers me however – it’s the lying, the misrepresentation of events, and the deliberate omission of data and evidence.

When Discovery Channel filmed “Mysteries in the Fields” in 2002, it invited Nancy Talbott of BLT Research to participate in an experiment in which three students from MIT would attempt to make a crop circle and replicate certain crop circle characteristics found by BLT (and which were detailed in three reports published in peer-reviewed scientific journals).  The three criteria Talbott established were the presence of: 1) elongated plant nodes compared with plants outside the circle; 2) expulsion cavities in the crop circle plants; and 3) the presence of magnetized iron spheres measuring 10-50 micron-diameter distributed in a linear fashion.  Samples were to be taken and delivered to Talbott after the students finished their formation, at which point she would determine whether they had met the criteria.

What happened?  The criteria were discarded after the experiment was underway.  The elongated plant node requirement was replaced by crop formation design – something that Talbott had repeatedly told the students could never be a criteria in determining whether a crop circle was man made.  While there was a brief reference to finding a few expulsion cavities (“not as many as we would have liked”) when examining the results, there were no clear close-up photos that showed what they were referring to.  The show’s producers claimed that the students had successfully distributed iron pellets around the formation, but there was no proof (or mention) of size, shape or distribution pattern.  Instead of delivering formation samples to Talbott for her to examine, Discovery appointed two MIT graduate students – obviously unfamiliar with the experiment’s original criteria – to be the judges.  They declared the experiment to be a success.  Talbott never received the test results, was not allowed to comment on the experiment’s outcome, and was not allowed to contact any of the students involved after the experiment was finished.  To top it off, a short article – “Crop Circles – MIT’s Most Ambitious Hack?” – detailing the experiment was printed in the web-based MIT News, and contained many errors (foremost among them that Talbott had said that one of the marks of a “true” crop circle is “a complex and precise design”).  Talbott contacted MIT News and requested the opportunity to reply.  The news director demurred, saying that “the students felt they had done good work,” and that while “the students had read many papers stating that true crop circles could be identified by geometry alone,” he understood that Talbott disagreed.  Talbott again requested (several times, actually) that her comments be published in MIT News. She received no further reply.

Crop Circle 5National Geographic is another science-focused organization that has created documentaries on crop circles.  In its 2005 “Is It Real?” program, the producers developed a purportedly balanced documentary, showing a video that was hoaxed, giving air to a statistician who claimed to be able to identify hoaxed formations while sitting in his office looking at data on the computer, including a clip of Nancy Talbott reviewing the research, and showing actual crop circle hoaxers creating a crop formation to prove that it was possible.  But…..the National Geographic team did not show that: 1) when the crop circle hoaxers worked during the evening hours the field was lit with flood lights; 2) the footage of the circle makers stomping down the formation was actually filmed in an already-formed circle formation – the circle makers were only pretending to stomp down the crop; and 3) the circle makers actually completed their formation during daylight hours.

In 2011 National Geographic had another go at it with “The Truth Behind – Crop Circles.”  The BLT Research Team was asked to participate, but after their previous negative experience with the 2005 National Geographic documentary, they refused without a written assurance from National Geographic that its coverage would be fair and unbiased.  National Geographic refused.

But there might still be hope.  In 2014, a National Geographic episode of “Paranatural” addressed crop circles, this time featuring a clip of W.C. Levengood in his Michigan lab explaining his findings (elongated nodes and expulsion cavities), along with close-ups of plant samples from within the crop formation, along with control samples from the same field but from outside the formation.  There was also a clip of Michigan State university students trying to replicate Levengood’s findings by using traditional circle maker methods (planks and rope).  The result was that the simple stomping down of the crop did NOT produce plant node elongation or expulsion cavities.  The students then attempted to replicate the damage Levengood said he found in crop circle formations by using a microwave at varying intensities and for different time periods.  They failed.

Of course this was immediately followed by comments from Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at CSICOP (read how CSICOP ignored the science and unfairly skewered the National Research Council’s 1988 report on parapsychological phenomena here).  Nickell stated:

When this information (i.e., Levengood’s findings regarding elongated nodes and expulsion cavities in crop circle plants) is properly published in peer-reviewed journals and reviewed and replicated by scientists, we might have something.  Until then, I think we don’t.

 

What?  Did he not know that Levengood (with other BLT co-authors) had three papers on the anomalies he found in crop formations accepted and published in peer-reviewed journals?  I assume Nickell did know, and that his emphasis was on having another scientist first succeed in replicating Levengood’s findings and then having the results published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Which is why I picked up the phone and called him. (Note: Calling Nickell was not nearly as creepy and stalkish as it sounds – on his website he states that he does not have an email and provides a phone number for media inquiries.)

Crop Circle 4I called Nickell because I wanted to tell him about Dr. Eltjo Haselhoff’s paper, “An Experimental Study for Reproduction of Biological Anomalies Reported in the Hoeven 1999 Crop Circle,” that was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of Scientific Exploration earlier this year.  Dr. Haselhoff’s research differs from Levengood’s in that he hypothesizes that the plant node length increase is caused by the BOLs (balls of light) that are often observed around crop circles.  However, Dr. Haselhoff found the same node increases and expulsion cavities in the plants – including standing plants – within the crop circles that Levengood did, and did not find any in the control plants (crop in the same field but outside the circle formation.)

And Joe Nickell answered!  While he didn’t answer my question, I do appreciate that he was willing to speak with me – especially since his neighborhood was both digging out of five feet of snow and under flood watch at the time.  Nickell stated, “The problem with crop circles is that until we have a known standard – a crop circle that has been proven to be produced by some sort of paranormal means – we have nothing.  All crop circles are potentially hoaxes, so the crop circles being tested are already contaminated.  Foolishness is what’s being done.”

So yes, Nickell evaded answering my question.  He also, apparently, feels it’s okay to move the bar of proof from where he previously had placed it, and to change the standard if the original criteria have been met.  According to Nickell, studying crop circles is foolishness until we have proof of a formation being created by means other than by humans.  Eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have witnessed crop circles being made are dismissed as delusions.

Crop Circle2But does Nickell have a point?  I went looking for any peer-reviewed research that proves that the anomalies observed in crop formations and documented by BLT Research are man made.  Crop circle skeptics point to a 2010 article in Nature, “The Crop Circle Evolves,” by Professor Richard Taylor of the University of Oregon.  His hypothesis was that microwave generators such as magnetrons from microwave ovens could be used to make the crop formations and, at the same time, would cause the anomalies that Levengood and Haselhoff observed.  Taylor placed similar articles the following year in publications of the Institute of Physics, Popular Mechanics and PhysicsWorld.

I contacted Professor Taylor by email and asked him what the results from his experiments were (the article had not made this clear).  Taylor replied that he hadn’t had the opportunity to test out his hypothesis.  He stated: “At the time, a lot of the internet discussion assumed that the presence of microwaves ruled out human involvement.  My main point was that people should consider and investigate how artists could use microwaves.  The magnetron idea was one such proposal.”

I admit the article had caused a fair amount of discussion, so from that point of view it had been successful.  I also appreciate that Taylor is actually exploring how plant anomalies within crop circles might be produced, rather than just dismissing them as nonexistant.  However, I wondered why Nature published the article if Taylor had not yet done the science.  Isn’t that required in peer-reviewed articles?  I looked at Nature’s explanation of its editorial process and found this:

Nature does not employ an editorial board of senior scientists, nor is it affiliated to a scientific society or institution, thus its decisions are independent, unbiased by scientific or national prejudices of particular individuals.

 

What – unbiased by scientific prejudices?!  Wikipedia describes Nature as “a prominent interdisciplinary scientific journal,” and states that getting a paper published in Nature is “very prestigious, with the papers often being highly cited, which can lead to promotions, grant funding, and attention from the mainstream media.”  But…. the editorial board boasts of being unbiased by scientific prejudice!  Honestly, I snorted my coffee.

So after I wiped down my computer, I read some more.  Taylor’s article fit into what Nature classifies as a Perspective Article: “a forum for authors to discuss models and ideas from a personal viewpoint …that can be forward looking and/or speculative.”   While Taylor’s article didn’t prove anything, it wasn’t meant to do so – the goal was only to spark discussion (which it did).

So the short answer is no – as far as I can tell there are no peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals that prove the anomalies found in crop formations and documented by Levengood and by Haselhoff are man made.  Neither has anyone been able to replicate these anomalies.

I spoke with Nancy Talbott of BLT Research regarding media coverage of the crop circle phenomenon.  I wondered whether both the media’s low opinion of the general public and it’s fear that ratings might suffer should they actually produce a high-quality thought-provoking program on crop circles might be the cause of the mediocre and biased documentaries that were being produced.  Talbott ventured that crop circle science is rather isolated – both from crop circle enthusiasts and from skeptics.  Many circle enthusiasts appear to prefer to ignore the science in favor of their own interpretation of how the formations are formed.  Many skeptics appear to be more wedded to the ideas they propagate than are the scientists who have done the actual work.  An additional complication is nationality.  The majority of scientific research on crop formations has been done by pants - uk vs usBLT Research – an American organization.  There exists a goodly number of people in the UK who believe strongly that the crop circle phenomenon belongs to them… and they don’t want anyone from the outside to intrude on what is happening and tell them about a phenomenon that’s occurring in their own back yards.

So my conclusion is….. the crop circle phenomenon has been the subject of biased treatment (in the negative sense) by media organizations that have presented their news coverage and their “documentaries” as a scientific look at crop formations.  This is exacerbated by the very limited numbers of scientists who take samples and actually perform tests in laboratories (and the costs associated with such), as well as by philosophical divisions between the groups who believe that not all crop circles are man made.  The skeptics have a legitimate role – both to expose hoaxes and frauds, and to act as a prod for scientists to thoroughly document their findings and otherwise adhere to strict scientific methods.  But while I am encouraged by the National Geographic’s most recent documentary, unless the media is consistently called out for its shoddy coverage of the circle phenomenon, this behavior will not likely change.   Any shift causing the media to take responsibility for what it produces will likely  come only as a result of a well-funded and organized campaign.

 

*  Crop Circle photos and reports courtesy of The Crop Circle Connector (cropcircleconnector.com)

 

 

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