Cereal offenders who won't go away

Hollywood's latest cash crop, the Mel Gibson thriller "Signs," took in more than $60 million in its opening weekend, a record for Gibson and for writer-director M. Night Shyalaman. The movie's premise – that aliens are responsible for the sudden appearance of elaborate "crop circles" all over the world – has resurrected a mystery that was actually solved a decade ago.

Crop circles first came to the public's attention in the late '70s, when they began appearing in the wheat fields of southern England. At first, they were just what the name describes – simple circles of flattened crops. As time went on, they grew more numerous and elaborate, with strange geometric patterns replacing the simple circle.

Since they always appeared overnight, investigators were initially mystified. Explanations ranged from the mundane – tracks left by large numbers of rutting hedgehogs was one explanation advanced in the early years – through the extraterrestrial to the supernatural.

A new "science" emerged, trying to explain the phenomenon in scientific language. "Cerealogists," or "croppies" as they are sometimes called, argued that the circles came from "plasma vortices," whirling masses of charged particles that weaken the crop stalks and force them to lie in the direction of the swirl.

After this theory began to be advanced in the media in the early 1990s, two elderly Englishmen, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, came forward to admit that they had been designing and making crop circles for more than a decade, with the aid of nothing more elaborate than a wooden plank and a simple sighting device.

But cerealogists refused to believe that two duffers could have produced such complex patterns. (The argument that crop circles are too complex to be made quickly by small teams, by the way, can be dismissed by just one glimpse at www.circlemakers.org.)

Despite film showing the two men creating highly complex crop circles, the momentum behind cerealogy was too strong to be stopped by any admission of English eccentricity. Cerealogists kept their business alive by claiming that a person cannot bend crop stalks without breaking them, and arguing that the absence of tracks to and from the circles precludes human intervention.

Again, evidence showed that crop stalks are often highly pliable in the summer, when crop circles appear. And hoaxers have demonstrated time and time again that they either use ready-made pathways left by farm vehicles or more enterprising means of concealing their entry into a field, such as using bar stools as stepping stones.

One industrious English hoaxer, Fred Day, became an expert at getting into the corn on stilts. As the British science writer Matt Ridley noted after successfully creating a number of crop circles himself, one can move in a corn field without leaving any trace simply by being careful where one steps.

Ridley also explained in Britain's Daily Telegraph in 1992 why it was so hard to convince the public it was all a hoax: "The chief believers first appeal to people's love of mystery by saying the phenomenon lies outside conventional science and then promptly assuage the media's thirst for bogus expertise. They form committees, hold conferences, and parade their credentials."

It's happening all over again with the release of "Signs." Acknowledging that the first circles appeared in the 1970s, CNN's Paul Clinton averred that "the rest is shrouded in mystery."

The Today Show on NBC even had the audacity to conclude its examination of the crop-circle phenomenon by using the greatest scientist of the 20th century to scorn the idea of a rational world: "Do we, especially moviemakers, really want an explanation? After all, it was Einstein who said the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."

As P.T. Barnum said, there's a "sucker born every minute," and Hollywood must be happy indeed that the media are so willing to act as carnival barkers.

• Iain Murray is director of research at STATS – the Statistical Assessment Service – a nonpartisan research organization.

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