Over the past fortnight, legendary paranormal researcher Jacques Vallee has posted two guest-blogs on (the insanely popular website) Boing Boing, on the topic of crop circles. In the first, "In Search of Alien Glyphs", he details his own alternative theory for their construction (first set out in "Crop Circles: 'Signs from Above' or Human Artifacts?":
In Sept. 1991, I published in a New Age magazine my own hypothesis about the Crop Circles phenomenon. I speculated they involved a military aerial device (not a space-based instrument) for generating such designs using focused microwave beams, such as a "maser." At the time nobody wanted to hear that the beautiful pictures in English corn fields might be crafted by a technical team inside some lab, bouncing signals from a hovering platform and using individual corn stalks as simple pixels to calibrate a lethal device. So my paper was met with dead silence.
Vallee then related his own theory to recent news regarding military use of microwaves. The comments from the Boing Boing crowd were as would be expected - a few supportive of the theory, or at least of Vallee's outside-the-box thinking - but mostly along the lines of...
Just for giggles, why not try some *gasp* actual science?
Look at the stalks. Have they been blasted with microwaves, or just bent by a guy with a two-by-four on a rope?
This fails even as a troll. Stupid conspiracy theories shouldn't have easily testable disproof.
Nevertheless, Vallee followed up his post with a second last week, titled "Alien Glyphs, Human Myths, Blogging Bliss". He began by addressing the many comments to his previous post, by saying his blog entry "could be considered, among other things, as a social science test of the role of belief systems in the manipulation of memes and factual data," going on to "explain why the hypothesis is not a joke but a logical result from observation and from the process of asking the right questions."
On the first point, I fully agree with Jacques. For every crazy gullible believer out there, there's also some armchair expert who thinks any 'skeptically-oriented' explanation that they hear solves the case - without reading any further. In the crop circle case, it's largely the 'Doug and Dave' headline, though if the 'skeptic' has read a bit more deeply, it would be the claims of groups like the Circlemakers and some of their public demonstrations. Belief systems are of all kinds, and aren't just restricted to crazy woos.
On the second point, I can only claim partial agreement. As all readers would know, I am *heavily* in favour of people putting forward alternative, out-of-the-box explanations of mysterious phenomena (as long as they are recognized as such). And Jacques has been clear on multiple occasions that it is just that. So I say good on him for doing so.
However, for me, parsimony suggests that crop circles are, quite simply, made by human artists with relatively simple equipment. Jacques lists three points which might support his theory. Firstly, that their growing complexity suggests "a classic, step-by-step program of technology development." In my opinion, the same could be applied to the 'technology development' of artists (e.g. as personal computers became more ubiquitous, more complex circle design was facilitated). His second point was that the "blown" nodes in the crop stalks showed that "something was coupling energy into the plants in the form of heat." This is certainly one of the key points in favour of something odd happening in crop circles - however, considerable doubts have been thrown on the science behind this (see for example, "Balls of Light: The Questionable Science of Crop Circles", which concludes that node changes are "as one should expect when whatever kind of mechanical force flattens the plants"). I do though have to admit ignorance as to the quality of the data and conclusions of CNES researcher Jean-Jacques Velasco, which Vallee cites in his Boing Boing blog - so this may indeed be something of note. Lastly, Jacques notes that the crop circles "are close to ancient megalithic sites, which excites the curiosity of New Age tourists from America, but they are even closer to the most highly classified military electronics labs in Britain." Again, both are highly attractive sites to 'underground' artists, so this could just as easily be in support of the man-made hoaxing theory.
From my own (admittedly limited) reading on the matter, the rule of parsimony when it comes to complex, intelligent designs found in crop fields, and taking into consideration the complex designs executed under commission by groups like The Circlemakers, I heavily lean towards the human 'stomp-board' hoax theory (see The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making, and the excellent documentary Circlespeak for wonderful overviews of the topic). Certainly, there's still room for debate, and there are additional mysteries even when accepting the hoax theory - even circlemakers talk about mysterious light sources appearing during construction of the glyphs. Add to that the trickster nature of the the circlemakers themselves (as discussed in my review of The Field Guide, linked above) and I still find crop circles a fascinating topic of discussion - and a fine source of eye candy to boot.
All the same, with the intellectual snobbery that one often finds in the comments to popular blogs like Boing Boing, I do feel that Jacques would do better to concentrate more on his strong points, such as the folkloric element of 'alien' encounters (as outlined in Passport to Magonia and Dimensions) or the sociological elements of UFO belief (as found in Messengers of Deception). Though, given the introduction to the second blog post, he may be going down the latter route somewhat with the crop circle topic. In his favour also, Jacques has many high-level contacts in science, finance and the military - so perhaps he has first-hand knowledge of certain projects that the rest of us do not which lead him towards this microwave weapon theory. He has promised a third Boing Boing blog on the topic soon, so stay tuned.
Previously on TDG: