Crop Circles – and Why People Believed in Them

The New York Times tells the story of crop circles, “the mysterious patterns that regularly intrigued people around the world in the 1980s and ’90s, prompting speculation about alien visitors, ancient spiritual forces, weather anomalies, secret weapons tests and other theories.”

They call the phenomenon “a reminder that even before the era of social media and the internet, hoaxes were able to spread virally around the world and true believers could cling stubbornly to conspiracy theories despite a lack of evidence — or even the existence of evidence to the contrary.”

In the case of crop circles, the most important contradictory evidence emerged on Sept. 9, 1991, when the British newspaper Today ran a front-page story under the headline “Men who conned the world,” revealing that two mischievous friends from Southampton had secretly made more than 200 of the patterns over the previous decade.

Doug Bower, then 67, and his friend Dave Chorley, 62, admitted to a reporter, Graham Brough, that in the late 1970s they had begun using planks of wood with ropes attached to each end to stamp circles in crops by holding the ropes in their hands and pressing the planks underfoot. They had then watched with amusement as their anonymous antics eventually attracted media attention and began being copied by imitators around the world… The real-life pranksters phoned the newspaper to come clean, according to Mr. Brough, now 62, who says he verified their claims by checking an archive of more than 200 crop circle designs stored in a shed behind Mr. Bower’s home. The designs were clearly aged and matched the patterns they had made over the years, Mr. Brough said.

“I spent a week getting them to show me how they had done it all, and I have never laughed as much in my life,” he recalled. “The prevailing wisdom at the time was that aliens were about to land any day, but it had all been kicked off by these two blokes who’d have a couple of pints at their favorite pub and then head out into the night to have a bit of fun….”

“The people who wanted to keep believing in aliens and everything else just ignored the evidence, no matter how obvious it was,” said Rob Irving, who had begun emulating the two pranksters’ work in 1989 and befriended them after they went public…. “The power of the art came from the mystery, and Doug forever regretted coming forward because the mystery was lost.”

A professor of psychology at the University of Bristol in Britain explains to the Times the thought process of believers (which he says predated the internet). “instead of admitting that we live in a world we can’t control, they take comfort from believing that there is agency involved and someone who can be blamed.” The Times finds an example in a crop circle proponent who now believes, to this day, that even if crop circles are all man-made, the people making them have unwittingly “been prompted by an independent nonhuman mind.”

Although after a new crop circle appeared, the Times obtained an alternative perspective — from a neighboring farmer. “It is just so irresponsible to be trespassing and destroying food in the middle of a global wheat shortage.”

Read more of this story at Slashdot.