I have repeatedly said in the past that I regard the skeptics’ position of refusing to consider anecdotes as evidence as a major logical and methodological fallacy. Scholars vastly more learned than me have taken the same position and argued for it in terms that I would never be able to match. The bottom line is that I, as a general attitude in life, do believe what people tell. And, when people tell weird, incredible stories, I do not automatically dismiss them as delusions, misperceptions, wishful thinking. On the contrary, I certainly consider “the plural of anecdotes as evidence” (skeptics cringe…).
Evidence for what, however? Evidence that something might be going on. Anecdotes in the so-called paranormal are, for me, a trigger for interest. A pointer for further research. In order to participate in the construction of my own picture of reality, anecdotes must be corroborated by investigations (in-depth observations, data recording and analysis by trained scientists) and, if possible, by laboratory experiments under controlled conditions. Then, when this corroboration happens, unbelievable stories remain unbelievable, but I am compelled to accept them as facts. And to build my picture of reality accordingly.
In this last article in the crop circles mini-series, we’ll look at the issue of corroboration, and draw some final conclusions.
Let’s take, for example, the case of balls of light and other inexplicable light phenomena. The anecdotal evidence seems pretty strong: there are reports of written, signed affidavits (although I haven’t seen one myself), and any crop circle documentary will have its fair share of interviews with eye witnesses for the phenomenon. I considered that enough to trigger my attention, so I set out to find any publicly available documental evidence and whether any investigation was carried out. The documental evidence I was able to find amounted to grainy pictures and shaky videos. Some of these were intriguing indeed (including the one in which a military helicopter appears to be chasing one of these lights), but nothing that would move me beyond a general curiosity. Investigations? Zero, zilch, nothing. This does not mean they were never carried out, it means that to me – the casual researcher – they are not readily available.
Let’s now compare this with the as yet unexplained phenomenon of the lights that appear every year in the Hessdalen valley in central Norway. For over 40 years now, strange lights, moving at incredible speed along the ground or high in the sky, have been photographed, videoed and tracked with radar. In about five minutes, I – the casual researcher – was able to find tons of excellent video material and hi-res pictures, and to learn that a permanent scientific research project is even based on the site. Before the five minutes passed, I was able to find a 45 page paper authored by three academics, including as many as 65 references and documenting in fine technical details many aspects of the phenomenon. That is exactly what I call investigation. That is what I would need to keep me engaged further with the crop circle saga.
Let me continue with the issue of plant anomalies in crop circles. These were summarised in the third article of this mini-series, and appear, at first sight, quite extraordinary. By looking at this part of the evidence – as shown, for instance in various documentaries – one is compelled to believe that something truly inexplicable is going on. So one goes on and looks for hard data: reports of investigations and, if possible, articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. And one finds them, as it were. The claims, however, are not so easy to accept, especially considering what I earlier described as the collective hysteria surrounding crop circles, so one investigates a little further.
And one finds – as recounted in the previous article – that all the investigations have been carried out by a single team of three researchers. I was not able to find any other paper or technical report apart from those produced by BLT Research. This, in itself, looks weird. We have such a massive phenomenon, allegedly accompanied by the most striking, macroscopic anatomical and physiological anomalies, and only three people have ever seriously looked into it? Furthermore, I also found that parts of the BLT research were likely flawed by errors in both the methodology and the interpretation of results.
In a way of comparison, let’s look at the psychic power of precognition. Since the dawn of civilization, people have reported occasionally being aware of events that will happen in the future. If you look at the anecdotal evidence from what we call spontaneous cases, you will find very strong reasons to investigate further and look at hard data. And when you do, you find, for instance, a meta-analysis for precognition experiments conducted between the years 1935–1987 by Honorton and Ferrari and published in 1989 in the Journal of Parapsychology. This included 309 studies, conducted by 62 experimenters, and showed relatively small but extraordinarily significant positive results: the probability of obtaining them by chance was one hundred thousand billion billion to one.
Three papers and three researchers for plant anomalies in crop circles. 309 experiments under controlled conditions and 62 researchers in one meta-analysis for precognition. Hello? Do you read me?
Finally (I could go on, but I think this would soon get boring), one of the potentially most fascinating aspects of the crop circles phenomenon is its alleged link with consciousness. The most attentive amongst my readers may remember that this was in fact what attracted me in the first place. If anybody wants to get an introduction to this particular subject, I suggest the various videos available on YouTube by British research Rob Buckle. In a nutshell, Buckle takes a very similar position to the one of Colin Andrews, namely that the unexplained part of the crop circles phenomenon a) is much, much smaller than it appears; and b) lies in a different area than anybody would expect. The two maintain that the real issue is not whodunit – they are convinced that most formations are indeed manmade. Rather, they say, whoever is behind these formations, a lot of weird, puzzling things happen around them. Buckle mentions anecdotal evidence for a range of phenomena witnessed and experienced directly by the circlemakers themselves whilst doing their things. And, it would appear that a number of anomalies show up equally in allegedly “original” circles and in manmade ones. One of the intriguing links with consciousness in particular is that many people – including the very Colin Andrews – have reportedly dreamt about a design, and then found it formed in crop at some location the next day, exactly as seen in their dream.
So, the causal researcher about crop circles that I am looks up any reference that would add substance to these very interesting stories. And, alas, all I can find are ufologist websites rehashing the very same stories. And the advertisement for a “six-part interactive video course” on “Crop Circles, Jung and the Reemergence of the Archetypal Feminine”.
In comparison, the scientific literature on dream telepathy is massive, colossal, and highly evidential. Between 1962 and 1978, a dream laboratory established at the Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, conducted 13 formal dream ESP studies, eleven investigating telepathy and two precognition, and three groups of pilot sessions. A meta-analysis of 450 Maimonides ESP trials found the overall success rate to be 63% (against an expected 50%) with odds against chance of 75 million to one. Since the Maimonides laboratory was closed, another 22 reports of formal dream ESP studies were published by 15 researchers, confirming that “judges could correctly identify target materials more often than would be expected by chance using dream mentation.”
At the end of a couple of months of trying to look below the surface of the crop circles phenomenon, I am therefore ready to draw my own conclusions. At first, I was utterly fascinated, attracted by the sheer beauty of the formations, and I openly said so. As a non-critical researcher, I later found tons of what appears as evidence that something very big and highly unexplainable is going on.
But I am not a non-critical researcher. I am a man of science, first and foremost, and of reason. I have taken my controversial positions on the mind-brain issue and, especially, on the survival of human personality of bodily death based on the in-depth knowledge and critical evaluation of masses of empirical and scientific evidence. So, I was compelled to look for such kind of evidence for crop circles. And I did not find it.
I do not maintain that all aspects of crop circles are explained. I do not maintain that all anecdotal evidence is false – the product of misperception and delusion. I do not even maintain that the BLT Research investigations about plant anomalies are necessarily solely the result of sloppy research. I maintain that, below a shimmering, mesmerizing surface, I could not find a fraction of what I need to really engage with the issue.
If anybody is aware of reports of serious investigations or scientific papers I have missed in my relatively superficial research, please point them out to me – I will be very happy to look at them.
Otherwise, as Ann Robinson would say: “Crop Circles – you are the weakest link. Good bye.”