“Angels, demons, fairies, creatures from heaven, hell, or Magonia: they inspire our strangest dreams, shape our destinies, steal our desires.” – Jacques Vallée, “Passport to Magonia”
Recently, acknowledged Fortean researcher Jacques Vallée published a series of posts on our cherished BoingBoing regarding crop circles (part 1, 2, 3, 4). News from last year about a directed microwave weapon by the US army prompted Vallée to argue that, since “these things are typically revealed 30 years after they are tested”, their initial development and testing would fit well with the heyday of the crop circle frenzy.
That is, Vallée promoted the idea, which he initially suggested in 1991, that crop circles are made by the military using directed energy systems, beamed from “a low-observable dirigible using corn fields as a convenient calibration target.”
But this is the web, 2.0, this was BoingBoing, one of the biggest blogs on the web, and most of the 66 comments were very critical of the idea, several of them considering it even a joke. Most of the comment authors didn’t even know who Vallée was, an indication they had almost no background on the Fortean field.
In his second post, Vallée started saying that the original text was, “among other things, a social science test of the role of belief systems in the manipulation of memes and factual data”. Critical of the response, he then went on to explain why his hypothesis wasn’t a joke.
Curiously, in his own seminal book four decades ago, “Passport to Magonia” (1969), Vallée himself does not take very seriously the idea that Soviets were responsible for crop circles:
“Rumors circulated blaming the Soviets for using the vast open spaces of Australia to develop scientific ideas one or two centuries ahead of those of the Americans. Why the Soviets could not conduct their secret testing in the vast open spaces of Siberia was not disclosed. Neither was it revealed why the pilots of the super-secret communist weapon could not resist the temptation to buzz the tractor of a twenty-seven-year-old banana grower.”
He has changed his mind since at least 1991, but he should be able to understand why people would find it hard to consider seriously the idea that secret weapons would be tested on highly publicized events, besides Stonehenge for instance, instead of “the vast open spaces of Siberia” or anywhere else, and for what reason would the military “not resist the temptation to buzz” some farmers. Or any other witness.
If this was indeed a social science test, it seems nobody did their homework, as apparently no one confronted Vallée on what he had published. But let’s take the idea seriously: does it stand as something reasonable, even probable?
Keep reading for more of our long comment on the subject, with trackbacks to BoingBoing, of course.
In his argument for a serious consideration of alternatives, Vallée quotes three critical issues originally raised by a French lab, and answers them:
(1) does the phenomenon change over time and if so, in what way? The answer is yes, they started as single circles and in the following years became increasingly complex.
(2) what exactly happens to the plants when they are flattened? According to him, man-made patterns will have broken stalks, while unexplained, complex patterns have them “exploded, often keeping the fibers intact”.
(3) is there something special about the sites? Again, yes, they are close to sites of interest to New Age tourists, “but they are even closer to the most highly classified military electronics labs in Britain”.
With those questions and answers – and some additional discussion – he tries to answer the objections he himself raised in 1969: those tests were being conducted near classified electronics labs, and the occasional sightings were probably unintentional. Or perhaps, and in any case, the publicity could be in itself a “masterful project in social engineering”, of which the military could also be interested in.
Those ideas are not mutually exclusive, but one can clearly see through them the “heads I win, tails you lose” argument. These patterns must be made near highly classified labs in Britain, and even if they could otherwise be created in arbitrary sites around the world, tourist sites in Britain would also be good because it would be a social engineering project. The sightings may be accidents, resulting from the use of blimps, or if not, those could be carefully constructed events to gauge and manipulate public reaction.
Either way, one gets with the idea that the military could be behind these things. Of course they could, once one assumes the military as a powerful, secretive force, they could have done almost anything. Anything at all.
In short, and coming to a conclusion well before the end of this text, Vallée is promoting the military as angels, demons, fairies, accounting for anything possibly unexplained here. As Magonians. All the same, perhaps sightings of angels and demons could also be product from some secret weapon, perhaps they did drive a whole town mad, after all there is evidence they actually conducted similar crazy experiments, it would be an amazing social test. The military, the Magonians, could do anything. Anything.
They could, perhaps, the real question is, did they?
To his credit, Vallée does not stick with speculation and unfalsifiable ideas. The published evidence would support some unconventional alternative explanation, as in the bent, not broken, stalks, as in the anomalies documented between 1990-2002 by the BLT research team. Vallée even mentions American biophysicist W.C. Levengood and the determination of “consistent changes in the circle plants which were not present in the control plants”.
This evidence would change the game and indeed support alternative explanations. It’s all in the evidence. Problem is, this evidence is not only surrounded in controversy, it’s simply spurious.
I exchanged emails with Nancy Talbott, from BLT, asking “how do you analyze authentic crop circles if you don’t define beforehand what is an authentic crop circle, for instance?”.
It’s the fundamental problem of taking crop circles as a mystery: how do you know a crop circle is “authentic”? The working method seems to be that all crop circles are “genuine” until they are proven to be “fake”, that is, man-made. It was this way that cereologists from Pat Delgado to Colin Andrews declared formations authentic only to see these statements haunt them as they were proven to have been made by puny humans. Delgado left the field as those humans were Doug and Dave, Andrews is still around, semi-retired.
Talbott replied that they found abnormalities in samples from inside crop circles not found either outside or on mechanically flattened control plants, as they were working with a complete unknown. Very well, even if you accept those abnormalities as criteria for crop circles, as Vallée did, you end up with what Talbott also called my attention for:
“Non-Geometric Crop Formations: Laboratory tests on plants taken from non-geometrically downed areas like these, in many different countries, often reveal the same changes found in plants from crop circles of more "geometric" design.” [BLT]
The image above is of a “formation” with the same changes found in “authentic” crop circles. According to the BLT team.
Doesn’t this look like clear evidence there’s something wrong? That these abnormalities must be product of many different causes? If one starts with a sufficiently large sample, one will find abnormalities. If they are not found, then the samples are simply not from “authentic” formations, and thus discarded. If they are found, however, also on “non-geometric” crops which any farmer would tell you is simply lodging, shouldn’t that suggest this is a sharpshooter fallacy? Firing blindfolded into a barn and then painting targets around the bullet holes? Even if the bullet holes completely miss the barn?
And I could go on and on with objections to the purported evidence. Patrick Gross already did that. Also, I have already written a debunking roundup which included discussion on what BLT is still promoting. I assume Talbott sincerely believes these things, but I must also repeat, these are spurious and the man responsible for things like the photo below is also a key witnesses in several of the papers promoting crop circles as mysteries. It’s spurious evidence.
“It seems clear that object is close to camera lens & in front of plant stems.”
Indeed, it’s clear, and yet the obvious conclusion that this is simply a reflective cutout placed in front of the camera reflecting the lens flash somehow escapes BLT.
The Field Guide
In his final post, Vallée laments how “the social engineering aspect … has rarely been mentioned. For me that aspect is the most fascinating part of the crop circle phenomenon”.
I concur, and since I have read “The Field Guide – Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making” (Rob Irving, John Lundberg, Strange Attractor Press) I have been promoting it as the essential reading on the subject, which unfortunately, it seems, Vallée have not read.
There one will find delicious stories about natural phenomena before the modern crop circle phenomenon – which go on to this day, as nature is not subject to human fashion and culture – and also how long before Doug Bower and Dave Chorley there were some man-made crop circles.
But what one will also find is evidence that Doug and Dave were indeed the pioneers of the social phenomenon as we know it, with photos from their exploits before any self-titled cereologist or even media outlet gave the subject any attention. Or, for that matter, before some secret military program of directed energy weapons was tested. It would be quite a coincidence to have such a program start only after the pair had been making circles, inspired by “UFO nests”. Not impossible, but quite implausible.
Much more so because all the elements in all crop circles, complex or simple, point out how they were mechanically flattened by humans using planks and ropes. The guiding lines have the width of a plank, the center points used to start formations are near tramlines, the crop is flattened in directions more convenient to each formations, the geometries generally reuse the same lengths (from which you see many hexagons, equilateral triangles, etc) and so on, and on, and on.
Even if the military had a directed energy weapon capable of heating determined areas of crops with the precision of a few feet, a lot of other requirements would be needed to produce the formations we know. For instance, how would heated plants all fall down in a particular direction? As if… mechanically flattened with a plank? Perhaps directing a beam from an oblique direction, heating different sides of the plants, or even creating… vortices, having the wind flattening the crop?
One could speculate endlessly, but fact is, directed energy weapons are also not something that new. Even the idea of using a laser to ionize air to direct the energy is not that new. The fact such systems are appearing now in the news is more related to the promotion of non-lethal weapons (it’s a nice irony that these directed energy weapons were originally “death rays”). Though advances in technology probably mean modern systems are more compact and efficient, the science and technology are not that revolutionary. And 30 years ago even the most advanced military projects wouldn’t have had access to the electronics you have on your desktop or cell phone right now.
Speculation for speculation, one could also suggest that recent sonic weapons could also create crop circles. Seriously, this is as plausible, or implausible, as directed energy weapons creating Hello Kitty formations.
Haters gonna hate
Jacques Vallée made it clear that “from the point of view of rational analysis the weight of evidence is still on the side of the skeptics who assure us that all crop circles are made by artists and lovable, jolly old men like Doug and Dave”. This is why Vallée is respected by skeptics alike, and that includes myself. I hope this criticism didn’t cross the line at any point, and if it did, I apologize.
Vallée followed that admission claiming however that “there are facts that don’t quite fit, and the alternatives are worth considering.” I disagree with the first statement, as I’m yet to see any fact that don’t quite fit the understanding of crop circles as man-made art created deliberately to puzzle those who want to be puzzled. I also disagree that this is a simple explanation. It’s quite a thing to appreciate, especially if at the bottom these are a bunch of people with ropes and planks.
It’s funny how over the years people have accused Vallée of being himself a disinformation agent, since that is something he actually discuss and warns about – including on his posts on crop circles. It was also interesting to see people in doubt whether he was being serious or just provoking discussion. Was Jacques Vallée trolling? As we quoted, he actually stated it was also a social test. So much speculation, so much thought, when there’s just Jacques Vallée writing a series of posts on BoingBoing. I have thoughts myself if perhaps Vallée knows The Truth and is playing with us. Or perhaps not. In any event, the same shroud of mystery automatically engulfs crop circles. We love mysteries. And this is fascinating, even more than if Vallée was a reptilian or crop circles were created by the Magonians, who actually control our military establishment.
It’s always worth considering alternatives, even for their own sake. I would be glad if Vallée read this long commentary, and would also thank you brave reader who ventured this far.
To you, I end with one trademarked word from Raytheon: Tempwave.
[image at the top: sxc.hu/yukh]
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