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Crop circles

A ufologist's experience of the crop circle craze, 1994:

The following is an article by BUFORA ufologist Paul Fuller in his crop circles bulletin The Crop Watcher, number 23, autumn 1994.

Confession Time

By Paul Fuller

As promised in a previous issue your Editor hereby offers himself for public flogging for all his Crimes Against Cereology. For too long I have highlighted the crimes of others, their lies, the deceptions and the belief-centred nonsense. Well, now its my turn. Here it goes !

Looking back over my eight years of involvement with the crop circle phenomenon I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about my achievements and failures. I don't think I can hide my disappointment that so many crop circles turned out to be man-made. Of course it would have been so so easy for me to adopt that favourite position of the armchair Skeptics by saying "I don't like the look of these circles, therefore they must all be hoaxes", but don't believe what you may have read elsewhere, that is not how science is conducted.

When I first became involved in circles research in late 1985 I quickly learnt from Jenny Randles that some circles were definitely man-made. This fact always underlined my attitude towards the subject and I took great care to ensure that I left plenty of evidence to demonstrate this fact. I always knew that some circles were hoaxes and I always considered it possible that a great many circles might turn out to be hoaxes. Despite this it is instructive to see that some observers (eg Robin Allen in The Skeptic, and Jim Schnabel in Round in Circles) have totally rewritten crop circle history to omit this fact, for reasons best known to themselves. It was blindingly obvious to anyone with the slightest grain of intelligence that peculiar circular markings in fields could easily turn out to be man-made. I said as much in my outrageous 1985 letter to the Editor at TVS News in Southampton, when I dismissed all the Cheesefoot Head circles as night-time hoaxes perpetrated by low flying helicopter pilots !!

Despite my initial pro-hoax views I quickly became open to alternative explanations when I was introduced to eye witness testimony, historical crop circle cases and Ian Mrzyglod's work. As so many of the early crop circles were relatively simple, and as there were some precedents for what was happening, I soon accepted that many circles might turn out to be meteorological in origin. It was certainly my scientific duty to see just how far this hypothesis could account for the evidence, and I am proud of the fact that Jenny Randles and myself are the two primary researchers who examined this theory and promoted it in the public arena. Despite claims made by some observers, we always disagreed with Meaden over the extent of hoaxing whilst giving Meaden the benefit of the doubt. In the absence of strong pro hoax evidence prior to circa 1990 I think we did the right thing.

In those early years I produced several published articles promoting both hoaxing and meteorological explanations. As speculation goes these articles were reasonable attempts at trying to understand some complex issues. However, on reading these articles now, seven years later, it is blindingly clear that my biggest error in the 1986-89 period was my failure to exhaustively test possible circle-making methods and to test these methods on the established researchers (a la Wessex Skeptics). By failing to do this I allowed myself to be swayed by Meaden's atmospheric vortex theory to the point where I accepted that many of the relatively simple formations I was seeing were "genuine". Of course, evidence remains which suggests that Meaden's theory is still valid for some cases, but it is still disappointing to realise that I was as guilty of promoting key falsehoods as everyone else. Of course, its easy with hindsight, but I do have some excuses.

To begin with, I was the only active circle researcher living in the Hampshire / Wiltshire area who was open to the idea that perhaps many circles were hoaxes. To make experimental circles would have been a difficult and risky business given the mystery mongering of other well known pundits. The last thing Jenny and I wanted to do was to help fan the flames of a silly season story, something the New Scientist had already accused BUFORA of doing in 1984. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. BUFORA was the only serious research organisation that had even bothered to investigate the phenomenon, and we had already spoken out publicly about both hoaxing and meteorology (something the official Skeptics have now totally written out of crop circle history in their attempts to debunk all crop circle researchers and all crop circle evidence). As I was soon to discover, once that term UFO is associated with an anomaly a very peculiar social reaction occurs whereby anyone associated with that anomaly is deemed by the Skeptics to be in league with the Devil ! If you don't believe this try reading Robin Allen's vicious and inaccurate article in The Skeptic !

During the mid 1980s Jenny Randles and myself demonstrated our concern that many circles might be hoaxes by proposing several methods of making crop circles. It was in response to our discussion of these possible methods (in "Mystery of the Circles", BUFORA 1986) that the BBC twice hired heli-copters and would-be circle makers to see what could be created under test conditions. Again we have never received the slightest degree of credit from the Skeptics for our suggestion that researchers should attempt to replicate "genuine" characteristics - something we were simply not resourced to do ourselves.

Looking back on those crucial early years I believe now that we were both severely misled by the poor quality of the 1983 Westbury hoax, where hoaxers left damaged crop despite making their circles in broad daylight. This event substantially reduced our expectations of what hoaxers could do at night, particularly given the extensive experimentation into methods of making crop circles which Pat Delgado discussed at the "Open Meeting" held in Alresford. The failings of this evidence mislead us all for years. Despite this, we discussed hoaxing in virtually all our written work and in almost all our media interviews. It is sad to see that our concern with hoaxing at this early stage in the development of the mythology has subsequently been totally written out of the history of the subject.

Looking back I can see all too clearly what went wrong. One of the characteristics of anomaly research is that the moment an anomaly is labelled and identified an incredibly emotive debate is generated where both proponents and Skeptics adopt extreme polarised positions. I saw this happening from a very early stage and was quite powerless to stop it. On the one hand we had the Flying Saucer Review team insisting that crop circles could not be hoaxes and just had to be the result of an alien controlled force, whilst on the other hand the official Skeptics were insisting that crop circles were not the result of an alien intelligence and just had to be hoaxes ! There was no middle ground, no reasoned argument about the facts, no understanding that in science several anomalies can often be lumped together under one explanatory heading.

During this very early stage I was thrown into a vipers nest, forced to decide whether the public debate over the cause of the circles was more important than the actual investigation of the circles. Deciding which of these two options to take was probably the most difficult choice Jenny Randles and I faced, but ultimately I suppose we tried to do both, with the inevitable result that we failed to fulfil both aims. We allowed the crop circle mythology to develop into a world-wide hoax whilst at the same time we failed to fully test all hoaxing methods. Of course its one thing to discuss numerous possible circle making methods in print but quite another to actually try those methods in the classic scientific manner.

By failing to construct circles I was not only guilty of misunderstanding what experienced hoaxers could create at night but I was also guilty of promoting the myth that "bent but not broken" was synonymous with the "genuine" phenomenon, something which has now been proven to be untrue on numerous well-documented occasions. I regard these two errors as my primary mistakes. However, the fact that I was all on my own, both physically and philosophically, meant that the opportunity to test these methods and assumptions about what hoaxers could and could not do was always restricted, particularly given my lack of time and resources.

Being asthmatic I imagine that I might be capable of making say a 10 foot diameter circle on my own, but even this would have left me totally exhausted and feeling pretty awful for some time afterwards. Making several circles to "test" the leading researchers would have been a physically challenging task. Of course, there were no official Skeptics or Magonians around to assist me or to suggest further avenues for research - they were too busy sitting at home watching TV !

In the early years I did visit crop circles, but as many appeared in the Cheesefoot Head punchbowl and as this area was allegedly out-of-bounds to researchers, I never went inside the Cheesefoot punchbowl circles - I merely trusted the abilities of my fellow researchers (something our oh-so-clever Skeptics have never realised !). Had I actually visited these early circles I would have discovered Matthew Lawrence's observation that many of these "pristine" circles exhibited damaged crop, muddy footprints and suspicious underlying tracks (something other researchers cleverly managed to miss or cover-up). I did notice a lot of damage in the 1987 South Wonston circle but I wrongly concluded that because it was so close to the road and housing that it had been damaged by subsequent visitors. Would be researchers note - you can't do your research from a car parked at the edge of the field and you can't assume that the evidence you examine is uncontaminated - it normally is !

Looking back on this period I realise now that as Andrews and Delgado became increasingly outspoken about the circles they were finding, I drew back realising (with utter horror) what they were going to do. My caution and concern about their activities actually led to me distance myself from the research and investigation that I should have been doing. This is not to say that I didn't visit circles at all - I certainly did - but the fear that I would find myself in the middle of a field with two people I deeply mistrusted had a strong negative effect on what I should have been doing.

During these early years, as Doug and Dave began making circles across a progressively wider area, I was severely restricted in terms of time and money. It wasn't until late 1985 that I had my first car and I well recall trampling up from the Percy Hobbs bus stop in July 1985 searching for my first circles (a quintuplet on Gander Down). It was a frustrating experience. However, even when I joined forces with Terence Meaden in 1986, it wasn't long before the Wiltshire hoaxers began hoaxing and many of their circles were a good hour or two away from my home. Unlike many other circle researchers, I was unwilling to allow my spare time hobby to interfere with my career with frequent nocturnal trips and circle-watching activities. I think this attitude was perfectly reasonable as there were others who were doing the basic investigation and I had high hopes that the phenomenon would soon be satisfactorily explained to the public at large.

Little did I know how those pretty little circles I was visiting would turn into a Great Filthy Hoax which would spread out around the world bringing wealth to a few but disaster to others. Looking back on it all now I wonder what would have happened had I done the correct thing - given up my job and camped out with a pair of infra-red binoculars in the copse half way down Cheesefoot Head. What would have happened had I seen Doug and Dave coming down the hillside to make a formation? Would I have been brave enough to tackle two complete strangers in the middle of the night a mile from the nearest habitation? Would I have been able to persuade these two men to stop their circle-making on the basis that they were helping others to discredit "serious" UFO research (no, don't laugh)? Who would have believed me if I had obtained this "proof" that their precious circles were actually man-made? Would Andrews and Delgado have stopped their reckless promotion of the subject if I had proven to them that one of their "genuine" circles was really man made? Would other hoaxers have stopped what they were doing? Somehow I doubt it, and we can just imagine the official Skeptics recompensing me for the loss to my career such actions would have entailed.

Those early years were deeply frustrating. I remember having an almost permanent headache in the summer of 1987 as I saw what was happening. How could I stop what Andrews and Delgado were doing? I was desperate to convince them to think again about their extraordinary interpretation of the evidence, but they simply ignored the evidence I sent to them and in the end they forced me into a position where I was left with no choice but to publicly slate them for what they were saying and doing, something I had hoped to avoid with my letters to them.

It shocked me to see the way Andrews and Delgado were promoting an extraterrestrial solution to the evidence without the slightest regard for more mundane explanations or the credibility of UFOlogy. I tried on several occasions to convince them to think again, but in the end this just made for more trouble in a very big way. It was during this period that I would have valued some help from the more rational elements of the UFO community - perhaps from those clever know-alls at Magonia or even the official Skeptics - but instead I was left to do everything myself. Of course in real life the cavalry never come just in the nick of time, yet now these very same people are the ones who are criticising and jeering ! What [...] they were !

So, now it is all over. I witnessed the birth of a social myth, a new religion, another extension to the overpowering UFO mythology. It was as if I had been there in the late 1940s when Ray Palmer and his associates invented the UFO myth with their fraudulent promotion of Schirmer's fictional story about aliens kidnapping humans into their underground bases. I saw the way in which the public were lied to, repeatedly, and how the British media, with its exceptional arrogance and stupidity, gave a handful of extra-terrestrialists everything they needed to promote themselves as world famous researchers. I can never forgive these people for what they did. They put UFO research back by fifty years with their actions.

Looking back on it all I don't think there is much more I could have done. Having made my two main errors I don't think I had the resources to work out what was really happening. I don't think I could have stopped the world-wide hoaxing that has developed. I don't feel that UFOlogy deserves much credit for the way in which believer groups like FSR and Quest International leapt to support Andrews and Delgado in what they were saying. These people were all UFO Traitors who cared for nothing except their own bloated egos and their money-making activities. History will recall them as such. I know because I was there.

Successes?

So, what about my successes? Well I suppose Jenny Randles and myself were in there investigating crop circles, analysing the evidence and publishing our research before the Skeptics had even got out of bed ! We were always alert to the idea that many circles might be hoaxes and we were always prepared to accept a dual solution of hoaxing and meteorology. In this respect we differed from almost all the other crop circle researchers who had already nailed their loyalties to single masts. Of course science often requires dual theories and we were right to adopt such an approach. I suppose we had five main achievements:-

(1) We challenged the popular myth that crop circles were the result of a spaceships' landing marks. We countered FSR's falsehoods in the public domain in the belief that the public were being led down the garden path (something the official Skeptics kept well clear of). Our aim was to give the public the facts that others chose not to. In doing this perhaps we opened some eyes in the scientific community that not all UFO researchers are maniacs, that UFOs are neither spaceships or nonsense, that in some cases obscure but objectively real phenomena may lie behind those reports.

(2) We suggested experiments to test hoaxing methods and we published evidence about hoaxing (eg in "Mystery of the Circles", BUFORA 1986). We were the only researchers who even considered that hoaxing might account for crop circles - a stance which soon bought us ridicule and despicable tactics from some of the other self proclaimed researchers who had attached themselves to the subject.

(3) We tried to rescue some credit for UFOlogy, as we very quickly saw the potential for the crop circles to totally discredit the serious side of UFO research (as well as the historical evidence, which we always felt was possibly more representative of the true phenomenon than the more outrageous hoaxes which others were eagerly promoting). This was one of the reasons behind our aggressive public stance against those who accepted without question that crop circles were caused by spaceships. In my opinion our best media achievements were

- the 9 July 1989 article in The Times, which challenged the FSR team for its unprofessional dismissal of eye witness testimony and the extent of hoaxing (another crucially important media quote which the Skeptics totally ignore with their rewritten crop circle history);

- the item on the ITV network news in 1989 when ITN science Editor Lawrence McGinty promoted Meaden's meteorological theory and hoaxing as the solution (ditto) - I remember dancing around my flat with joy after that one !;

- our part in the 1986 and 1989 BUFORA debates, which were an attempt to stimulate a proper scientific debate which (tellingly) the Flying Saucer Review team and the official Skeptics never reciprocated, but which bought us credit from scientists like Dr Paul Mason at the Met. Office in Bracknell, - and

- my first solo "live" TV interview, where I discussed eye witness testimony and hoaxing before Doug and Dave came forward (TVS News, 19th July 1990).

(4) We also did things that no other crop circle researchers did, eg we conducted surveys, examined historical cases and we published all the pro-hoax evidence (years before Doug and Dave came forward). In effect we evaluated ALL the data, proposed quantifiable hypotheses and continually emphasised our belief that there was a rational explanation for the phenomenon. We took a particular interest in the sociology of what was taking place. In short we witnessed the birth of a new supernatural mythology - a subject of study in its own right. Despite Robin Allen's ludicrous comments in The Skeptic we spent many hundreds of unpaid hours of our spare time circulating crop circle evidence to researchers all over the world. Science would have expected nothing less of us.

(5) We took Meaden's controversial meteorological theory and used it to try and explain numerous high strangeness UFO reports. This approach is something that proper scientists should still be doing, although the Skeptics have treated this work with utter contempt whilst failing to explain why these explanations are (apparently) so wrong. In my view this is work that deserves to be continued, regardless of the jeers of the Skeptics, whose failure to properly falsify scientific evidence is legion. Note that none of these things were ever done by the official Skeptics, who avoided the crop circle debate for ten long years. Presumably the Skeptics' failure to contribute to circles research was largely due to a fear that they might be wrong ! Yet now opinionated know-alls like Robin Allen are actually trying to claim the credit for having exposed mass crop circle hoaxing ! To summarise I think any future historian of the subject who works through my 30 box files of crop circle material, my media interviews and my published work is going to have a tough old time trying to evaluate my "contribution" to the subject. I think the real problem is that I could never really made up my mind whether what I was seeing was hoaxed or genuine. I never had the time and money to do everything I wanted. I know I got a lot of things quite wrong, but I also got some things right. To be dismissed by Robin Allen as just another True Believer in the mysterious circles is perhaps the final insult in the long and troubled history of our subject.

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