Crop Circles
Are They Signs?
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: [August 18th, 2002]

On top of the box-office sits presently the movie Signs, a despicable piece of pro-faith and pro-paranormal propaganda. The basic premise of Signs is that :

  1. Crop circles are made by aliens, who have nothing better to do than take over the world.
  2. Faith in God will help you through anything.

“Belief in crop circles is similar to pyramidiocy. They all consist of taking an obviously directed phenomenon (pyramids, crop circles), marvel at their complexity - which is perfectly admirable - and then jumping to the conclusion that man could not do these things.”

The second proposition is so absurd and obviously false that there is little need to refute it. But the first question - crop circles - is more interesting. As reviewer Rex Reed, of the New York Observer, wrote:

"Is the unknown force cutting strange patterns in the cornfield some kind of sinister warning from extraterrestrials trying to invade the planet Earth? Or is the whole thing just a big hoax designed to frighten the populace—like the movie itself?"
Crop circles are patterns of flattened crops, usually wheat, appearing in fields. Seen from above, these patterns are usually complex and appealing. The appearance of these patterns has led some gullible people to believe that they were made by aliens.

But finding flattened wheat on one's field is not a new problem. The first crop circle was observed in the UK around 1981 - it was made in 1978 by a man named Doug Bower. He only used planks of wood, rope, and string ("Notorious Crop Circle Hoaxer Said To Reveal All", The Telegraph, January 3 1999). In 1991, Doug Bower and friend David Chorley admitted to having made more than 250 crop circles.

There is even a web site for crop circle makers, called CircleMakers. They provide people with a how-to guide for new circlemakers, even giving hints on how to fool later investigators by clever design. Crop circle making has also been demonstrated to the media. Thus, there is no reason to believe that crop circles are anything but humans pranking other humans.

Why, then, would anyone believe in crop circles as an alien phenomenon? Believers typically reject the evidence as being part of a government conspiracy, presumably to extinguish knowledge of alien presence. They also knock down straw-men, like the idea that crop circles are made by ball-lightning. But that is patently absurd, since crop circles have not been widespread until recent times.

Belief in crop circles is similar to pyramidiocy. They all consist of taking an obviously directed phenomenon (pyramids, crop circles), marvel at their complexity - which is perfectly admirable - and then jumping to the conclusion that man could not do these things.

This is often a manifestation of the "no numbers" mentality. We stand in awe, yes, but simple calculations reveal that such things could have been done by man. This does not in any way make our accomplishments less awesome: indeed, comprehension of how things work often makes them more magnificent.

Suppose the use of a simple wooden plank (stalk-stomper), which is around a third of a square meter. If it takes, say, five seconds to cover the area of the plank on the field, one could cover more than 3 square meters in a minute. Since most crop formations range from approximately 20 meters to 200 meters large (with some rare 500m masterpieces), and more than half of that is "empty space" (planned judiciously, of course), it is quite easy to imagine that one or many humans could have made a crop circle during a night. This kind of back-of-the-envelope calculation can be used to disprove a number of paranormal disciplines, including astrology and homeopathy.

Some crop circles do present complex and elegant forms to the viewer, but this is not any more of a fabrication problem than simple formations. It is, however, a greater design problem, which can be solved by a number of methods. One obvious solution is to start with a fixed center and use a tape to keep distance.

In attempting to give some credibility to their disciplines, cerealogists - paranormal investigators of crop circles - try to find phenomena that could bolster their cause. One crowd favourite is magnetism: alien circlemaking is said to be associated with magnetic fields which can be detected in the wheat. Some invoke bizarre phenomena, such as patterns of deformation of the flattened wheat. None have been scientifically proven.

But the philosophical problems around crop circles are the most obvious. If crop circles are a form of alien communication, as cerealogists say, then they are not doing very well, since they are not communicating anything that we can understand. Furthermore, there are much better ways. As Seth Shostak points out in his article "Is the Latest Crop Circle a Message from E.T?" for SETI:

"[W]hy would they resort to an extraordinarily crude method of "replying" - carving simple messages in our wheat? Why don't they use radio? The wheat graffiti only conveys a handful of information - roughly the equivalent of a few sentences of any text. They could convey far more, in a matter of seconds, by radio. If radio isn't their thing, why don't they simply leave a copy of the Encyclopedia Galactica on the doorstep of either the farmer or the radio observatory? They could arrange for a radio blast sufficiently powerful to reach every FM or TV set in a hemisphere, which would quickly convey far more information, and to everyone at once."
And that, to make a story short, is the problem with all forms of higher communication with gods and angels, aliens, or higher planes of existence. If they are communicating, why use means that are so trivial that they cannot be distinguished from a human hoax? Could it be... because there are no gods and angels, aliens, or higher planes of existence? That is indeed eminently possible.


  • Touchstone Pictures: Signs
  • The New York Observer: Unintelligible Signs [scroll down]
  • Circlemakers: Beginners Guide
  • SETI: Is the Latest Crop Circle a Message from E.T?

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