Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The circle game

Yesterday, the news carried reports of an eye-opening first-ever event, an occurrence which some were attributing to supernatural forces, others calling a Sign of the End Times, and most scientists dismissing as a hoax:  Ann Coulter said something nice about a Democrat.

No, not really, I wouldn't expect anyone to believe that that had happened.  What actually occurred is that the country of Indonesia had its first recorded crop circle.  And, predictably, the alien-invasion crowd immediately converged upon the spot, claiming that this was conclusive proof at last.

Villagers in Sleman, Yogyakarta, woke last Sunday morning to find that a rice field had been adorned with a pattern of circles and triangles seventy meters in diameter.  The stalks were flattened in the "combed-down" fashion typical of earlier crop circles, and the symmetrical pattern soon became a magnet for gawkers.

(Check out a photograph of the circle here.)

The Jakarta Post quotes a local, Cahyo Utomo, as saying, "I think they were left by an alien spacecraft, like I saw on TV."

Well, far be it from me to contradict Mr. Utomo or his television, but it's already been demonstrated that crop circles can be made fairly quickly by a couple of guys with nothing more than a board, a spotting scope, and some rope; a couple of old English dudes, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, even demonstrated back in 1991 how they had made a few themselves.  Shortly after that, a couple of high school kids in Hungary were actually arrested for crop damage after making one, and a guy named Matt Ridley published an article in none other than Scientific American describing how he'd made several single-handed.  You'd think that at that point, people would go, "Oh.  Humans make these.  I see now.  How silly of me to think it was aliens."

You'd be wrong.

Since Bower and Chorley confessed on the BBC back in '91, the crop circle phenomenon has exploded, and the theories about what is making them have progressively gotten wilder and wilder.  The most prosaic-minded theorists -- and this isn't saying much -- suggest that they're caused by some sort of localized, extremely symmetrical weather phenomenon.  Basically, what they describe is sort of an OCD tornado.  From there, the hypotheses sail on out into the void, and include visitations by aliens, signs left by secret societies as messages to other, even more secret societies, and (my personal favorite) attempts at communication with humans by Mother Earth herself.

My problem with all of these explanations, besides the obvious one that even writing them down makes me want to take Ockham's Razor and slit my wrists with it, is that if crop circles represent some sort of communique -- whether from aliens, the Illuminati, or Gaia -- they're a pretty obscure communique.  Some of them are quite beautiful -- in fact, I've got a photograph of a crop circle as the desktop background of my computer at school, much to the wry amusement of my students.  However, if they mean anything, it certainly isn't immediately obvious what that might be.

My general thought is, if aliens were trying to announce their presence, there are more direct ways to do it.  Landing a spaceship in Times Square, for example, would certainly do the trick.  Why a highly-developed, technological race would take the time and trouble to fly across the light years of interstellar vacuum, and then get to Earth, flatten a bunch of cornstalks, and fly away, I have no idea.

In any case, the woo-woos have been so stirred up by this incident that officials in Indonesia were prompted to take action -- the Indonesian National Atomic Energy Agency was so flooded by phone calls demanding that they investigate the site that they reluctantly sent someone out with a Geiger counter, which (surprise!) didn't register anything.  Once again, what you'd hope would be the response -- "Oh, okay, I guess it wasn't an atomic-powered alien spacecraft" -- didn't happen.  Most folks seemed to say, "Wow!  Those aliens sure are pretty tricky, to come and go and leave no traces of radiation!"

Anyhow, as with all of these events, sooner or later the hype will fade, and the woo-woos will return to their crystal-lined, pyramid-shaped houses, and all will quiet down until the next time some college kids get into a field with a board and some rope.  Maybe eventually, people will begin to see that these really are human-generated pranks, and not of paranormal origin, and will begin to take a more skeptical view of these sorts of things.  Or maybe Ann Coulter will say something nice about a Democrat.  Given a choice, I'd put my money on the latter happening first.

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