Author Topic: How to make crop circles  (Read 1536 times)

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How to make crop circles
« on: July 13, 2003, 02:54:40 pm »
Like palm reading, three-card monte and Brooklyn Bridge salesmen, crop circles never die out, thanks partly to the news media's willingness to continue fanning the flames of excitement over a goofy claim that was disproved many years ago.

That's the view of some organized skeptics who, in recent days, rolled their eyes in weary disbelief at the latest revival of crop circle mania, smack in the middle of a Solano County wheat field.

For the past two weeks, sightseers have flocked to the corner of Suisun Valley and Rockville roads, four miles west of Fairfield, to see a dozen crop circles: rounded areas with flattened crops. In UFO mythology, such areas represent the landing sites of flying saucers, or some other spooky weirdness beyond scientific understanding.

But the fact that four Fairfield teenagers took responsibility Friday for creating the circles came as little surprise to people who have studied similar claims. More than a decade ago, a crop-circle craze in England was exposed as the handiwork of hoaxers armed with ropes and boards, skeptics say.

"All the media publicity for such circles tends to encourage copy-cats -- and this is precisely what scientists expect is happening in Northern California," says Andrew Fraknoi of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.

Past research shows that crop-circle crazes are fueled considerably by media attention, says Joe Nickell, an internationally known "paranormal investigator" at the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in Amherst, N.Y.

"This is still pretty much the case -- when the media stops talking about (crop circles, sightings) go down, and when they start talking again, (sightings) go up," Nickell said.

Fraknoi singles out The Chronicle for criticism, noting that the paper ran two "fluff pieces" about the latest crop circle fuss, including one on the front page. Even though the articles were clearly written with a sense of humor, Fraknoi said that "plenty of people took the piece and the circles seriously. Partly it was the prominent placement and the photos."

Silly though the subject seems, it is no laughing matter, adds Fraknoi, former executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, based in San Francisco. "In our media-obsessed times, publicity -- any kind of publicity -- seems to be good for most subjects. . . . Raised on pap, many young people don't know how to do skeptical reasoning any more."

At Foothill College, "many of my students come into astronomy classes fully convinced that UFOs are real and that many other forms of pseudo-science covered by the mass media are part of the scientific landscape of the 21st century."

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, an Altadena-based publication that is one of the two leading magazines of the U.S. skeptics movement launched in the 1970s, recalls how more than a decade ago, enthusiasts insisted the circles were too complex to be explained in ordinary terms. Then skeptics showed how to create them with ropes, boards and a few determined pranksters -- and the pranksters themselves began fessing up.

"If even crop circle enthusiasts and believers admit that 99 percent of all crop circles are man-made hoaxes, what are the odds that the other 1 percent represent something extraterrestrial?" asks Shermer, who was trained as a historian of science. "Before we say something is out of this world, we need to first make sure that it is not in this world. Crop circles are indubitably this worldly."

Still, crop-circle crazes deserve close analysis by social psychologists, anthropologists and other students of mass behavior, says Nickell, a prolific author -- he's working on book No. 20 -- whom the New Yorker profiled last year. Among other things, crop-circle crazes illustrate the dynamics of pop beliefs and how they are sometimes sparked and molded by media pressure, he says.

In the 1990s, Nickell and a colleague, John Fischer, conducted a detailed study of crop-circle claims, which they published in CSICOP's journal Skeptical Inquirer. Besides finding that the intensity of crop-circle sightings was closely correlated with the "bandwagon effect" of media coverage,

they realized among other things that reported circles became more elaborate with passing time. They concluded that different teams of hoaxers, working by night, were probably trying to "one-up" each other.

Who was responsible? About that time, Lord Zuckerman, a famed former scientific adviser to the British government, wrote a bemused article in the New York Review of Books pointing out that British crop circles tended to be found close to boys' boarding schools. Coincidence?

The crop-circle balloon burst -- seemingly forever -- in 1991, when two British landscape painters, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, confessed to British media that they had perpetrated some of the most celebrated circles. Previously, self-proclaimed crop circle experts -- calling themselves "cerealogists" -- argued those same circles were evidence of alien visitations,

and too hard for humans to quickly produce during late-night crop-stomping in fields of rye, wheat and barley.

"The most amazing thing about the crop circles is the notion that after coming here across light years of space, with technologies clearly beyond human capability, alien visitors would somehow take special delight in making cute little diagrams in wheat fields in the dead of night and then disappearing," Fraknoi says.

"It's like assuming that Captain Cook would set off on a great journey across vast oceans and then content himself with making a few swirls in the sand of the first beach he came to, but making no further contact with anyone, and then going home."

How crop circles have been made
Crop circles have stirred up debate worldwide as to their source. Many claim that anyone "with too much time on their hands," as Fairfield-area wheat farmer Larry Balestra put it, can make a crop circle with simple tools. The only things they would need are a stake, rope, boards or metal pipes and a willing crew. Here is a common way of making crop circles.

1 A stake is hammered into the field at the center of the area where the circle will be created.

2 A rope is tied to the stake and stretched to the edge of the circle.

3 A crew member at the end of the rope makes a perimeter by walking in a circle around the stake.

4 Boards or heavy pipes are then dragged over the crop to flatten plants within the space.

5 Outside the new circle, rings can be made by leaving sections of the crop undamaged.