Hollywood Aims to Reap Summer Box Office Harvest from Field of Hoaxes-and Skeptics Say Pseudoscience Is the Fertilizer.
Amherst, NY (July 17, 2002)-“Signs,” starring Mel Gibson, is Hollywood’s latest attempt to cash in on the allure of the paranormal. The film, distributed by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, is scheduled to open in American theaters on August 2nd and is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who brought audiences the haunting spiritualistic thriller “The Sixth Sense” (1999). “Signs” tells the story of Pennsylvania pastor Graham Hess (Gibson), who turns to farming as a way to escape theological doubts after the tragic death of his wife in a car accident. Hess is thrown into the media spotlight when 500-foot crop circles begin appearing in his fields. That’s right: crop circles.
These strange geometric patterns of matted-down grain stalks began garnering media attention in the late 1970s when they cropped up in English wheat fields. They evolved into a world-famous phenomenon in the 1980s and 90s, sparking plenty of controversy-and pseudoscience-regarding their origins. Credulous crop circles researchers-known as “cereologists” or “croppies”-believe that either extraterrestrials or “plasma vortices” are responsible for the phenomenon. Cereologists have argued that hoaxers could not be responsible for crop circles, because the grain stalks are bent and not broken, and there were no traces of footprints leading to scenes. Skeptics, including Joe Nickell, who is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), have replied that from mid-May to August, wheat is naturally green and pliable-so it is no mystery that the stalks pressed down to make crop circles are not broken. Furthermore, the tramlines left by tractors divide wheat fields into closely spaced parallel rows. Hoaxers can easily walk the tramlines without leaving tracks or disturbed grain in their wake.
In the early 1990s, Joe Nickell teamed up with forensic analyst John F. Fischer to research the entire crop circle phenomenon over previous decades. They found all of the hallmarks of hoaxers at work. “The escalation in appearances correlated directly with the increase in media coverage,” says Nickell. “For years the phenomenon was concentrated in southern England. Only after media reports spread internationally did crop circles begin to appear in significant numbers elsewhere.” Nickell also points to the fact that crop circles only became more elaborate over time-evidence of hoaxers demonstrating increasing mastery of their art. Finally, there’s what Nickell calls the “Shyness Factor”: like graffiti artists, whoever makes crop circles does not want to be seen in action.
Nickell and Fischer were vindicated in 1991-just before they published an investigative report in Skeptical Inquirer magazine-when crop circle hoaxers Doug Bower and Dave Chorley came forward and subsequently fooled cereologist Pat Delgado, who had declared an example of their handiwork to be beyond any hoaxer’s ability. Since then, many other people have admitted to making the designs as well.
“It’s about time that crop circles get put in their proper place,” says Nickell when asked about the new “Signs” film. “Crop circles are the stuff of Hollywood fiction, not science.”