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Aired August 30, 2002 - 17:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: Another go-round for crop circles. Hollywood puts its spin on an enduring enigma. Call it a controversial field.

Hello and welcome.

England's Wiltshire County is home to one of the most famous oddities of ancient times, Stonehenge. It's, also, oddly enough, the site of an apparently more modern mystery. Its well-tended farms are said to feature the biggest concentration of crop circles, large clearings which appear without warning in otherwise ordinary agricultural lands. Among people who study the circle, circles rather, Wiltshire is famous, but for the rest of us, the circles have a different center, Hollywood.

A new big budget movie starring Mel Gibson and monsters from outer space is creating entirely new interests in crop circles.

On our program today, when worlds collide.


They call it cerealogy, the study the crop circles, and there is a lot to study. There are people who believe that crop circles have been appearing for centuries, and that these days, hundreds, perhaps thousands, appear each year. Though most are simple circles, increasingly elaborate designs are growing more common.

We tell you this, not knowing, exactly, what to believe, which is the starting point for signs, Hollywood's contribution to cerealogy. We have two reports on the movie and the mystery. First, here's Paul Clinton, on cerealogy, skepticism and even the lessons of Star Trek.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Crop signs first emerged in the late '70s.

PAUL CLINTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That much is true. The rest is shrouded in mystery. Are crop formations the work of humans or something else?

ED SHERWOOD, CROP CIRCLE ENGINEER: I've, actually, witnessed a crop circle form, from a distance, in 1992, and it was created by a ball of orange light.

CLINTON: Psychics, Ed and Chris Sherwood, are true believers. Their apartment is a virtual shrine crop circle research.

E. SHERWOOD: These are all England and, except this one up here.

CLINTON: In M. Night Shyamalan's new film, a minister's field gets the circle treatment. That's the handiwork of filmmakers.

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: It was, really, mystical, even though we made it. You know, it was mystical.

CLINTON: Of the formations that have appeared around the globe, the Sherwoods think aliens or men made some. Others, they believe, are the result of a mysterious force.

E. SHERWOOD: It's like a spiritual...

C. SHERWOOD: Psychokinetic interaction...

E. SHERWOOD: ... that we are all a part of, and it's part of our realizing that we are part of a greater...


E. SHERWOOD: Of course.

CLINTON: Scientist Irving Biedermann (ph) isn't buying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Extraordinary claims, such as these, require extraordinary proof. And not only isn't there extraordinary proof, there's no proof.

CLINTON: Biedermann (ph) is part of a group that debunks supernatural claims.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we can make our crops circle over here, if we just stomp around for a couple of minutes.

E. SHERWOOD: The genuine formations have plants that we bent 90 degrees without a crease. It's like they're steamed into position.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no question that one could duplicate, readily duplicate, some of the changes. Bending the sample, itself, or putting it in a microwave.

CLINTON: In "Signs," the Hess family wears tinfoil for protection from aliens, but the Sherwoods say, that's not necessary.

E. SHERWOOD: I think they have a strong policy of nondirect intervention.

CLINTON: Maybe they're following Star Trek's prime directive.

PATRICK STEWART, ACTOR: Who the hell are we to determine the next course of evolution for this people?

CLINTON: So are there strange forces around us?

MEL GIBSON, ACTOR: In my life, maybe a dozen times like really strange things have happened to make your hair stick up on the end. And there's something else out there, man.

E. SHERWOOD: And not only are we not alone, but there's more than one thing out there that means we're not alone.

CLINTON: We're not alone.

Paul Clinton, CNN Entertainment News, Hollywood.


MANN: What it is about some people that makes them more inclined to believe? Well, according to one expert, being American and uninformed helps.

Beth Nissen picks up the story.


BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Crop circles are intricate, seemingly mystical, designs, that, since the mid-1970s, have periodically cropped up, usually overnight in a field. They are also the latest field of battle between science and pseudo-science.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS, ASTROPHYSICIST: Pseudo-science is based on ideas that are either non-testable or, in fact, have been tested and have come up disagreeing with the experiments. Many ideas that are just simply wrong. Crop circles are a perfect example because for some reason, as often happens, immediately, people said, aha, it's aliens. Well, that's an interesting hypothesis.

NISSEN: But not a hypothesis that can be tested. And anyway, a hypothesis already disproven. In 1991, two humans, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, admitted that they, not aliens, had been making crop circles in England at night for 13 years. Step-by-step how-to directions for ever- more complex designs have since been published on the World Wide Web.

KRAUSS: In science, one you propose something and test it, if your hypothesis doesn't agree with the observation, we throw out the hypothesis. No matter how beautiful it is, it's gone.

NISSEN: Pseudo-science doesn't play by those rules. It allows, even encourages, inventive guesses, strange coincidences, popular theories with or without evidence. Doug and Dave's confession aside, some Americans will continue to believe that aliens might have made the crop circles, and maybe, landed in Roswell, New Mexico, a few decades back, and might well have visited earth more than once. It's possible, right?

KRAUSS: To have some perspective on what's possible and what's not possible, you've got to have some grounding in science, and unfortunately, in this country right now, the level of scientific is extremely low. Fifty percent of Americans, in a survey by the National Science Foundation, did not know that the earth orbited the sun and took a year to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't change the laws of physics.

NISSEN: More Americans connect the laws of physics to science fiction than science. Few have any grounding in space, know, for example, that travel between earth and the nearest star would take almost 100,000 years at conventional rocket ship speeds.

WILLIAM SHATNER, ACTOR: Warp speed, Mr. Sulu.

NISSEN: Few know that, even if something like Star-Trek's warp speed was possible, and earth's physicists haven't ruled that out in principle, a cross-galactic trip would still be almost unfathomably challenging.

KRAUSS: To send a spacecraft out at the speed of light, or near the speed of light, no matter what technology you use, would require an energy which is equivalent to the entire energy used by humanity at the present time. It's very, very unlikely that any civilization could, actually, make it here.

NISSEN: Krauss and other scientists say it is especially hard for Americans to accept limits of physics, of possibilities. Part of the problem is our democratic tradition, our belief that majority opinion rules. It doesn't in science.

KRAUSS: When it comes to science, there's, sometimes, only one side. In fact, that's what makes science so powerful.

NISSEN: There's something else, a law of nature, American nature.

KRAUSS: I think that, in fact, Americans have a special predilection towards believing in these type of things because of the American mentality that anything is possible. The notion that some things are, simply, not possible seems to go against the grain.

NISSEN: He said it. I didn't.

Beth Nissen, CNN, New York.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, a conversation with the director of "Signs" about the frightening side of farm life and movie going.


SHYAMALAN: When we go through life and we go, we know this wall is made of bricks, we know the carpet's made of this, and you know, the food is prepared this way, but then if there's something unusual, something we can't explain, we're immediately drawn to it.




HALEY JOEL OSMENT, ACTOR: I see dead people.

MANN (voice-over): Dead people are frightening, and director M. Night Shyamalan made a very popular, profitable and frightening film about them. In the "Sixth Sense," Bruce Willis portrays a psychologist trying to help a youngster who's haunted by the dead. Ghosts are a classic horror theme. Making grain scary seems like a bit of a departure.


Welcome back.

We had a change to talk to the director a few days back about his new movie, "Signs," and about the subject matter. Why a man who could, essentially, write and direct any script he wanted went to work with crushed corn.


SHYAMALAN: I can't believe that it hasn't been made into a movie, yet, because, you know, it lends itself to kind of film, the size of it, the breadth of it. You know, it's intriguing. You know, for me, you know, the way I like to tell stories, I like to show you the skin of the creature without showing you the creature, you know, and if you know what I mean. And by showing the crop sign, I can show you the footprint of something's been there without showing you the thing that did it for a long time in the movie. And so it's a great tool for a suspenseful filmmaking.

MANN: And yet, there's a small number of people who take them extraordinarily seriously, and there are a lot more people who think both crop circles and the people who take them seriously are funny, really. Was that a handicap making the movie, or was that part of the point?

SHYAMALAN: You know, it's just -- there's just enough window, there, for me to drive this story through, that it's possible, you know. And in my opinion, I think like 80 percent of them are, you know, fake, and then the 20 percent that we can't explain is, really, what the conversation is about, and whether any of those are real. You'd only need one of them to be real.

MANN: Well, let me ask you, in the course of your research, did you ever come across one or did you ever come across any evidence that was, particularly, compelling or convincing to you?

SHYAMALAN: Yes, I mean, you know, we made our crop circles in the movie, you know, with our crew and everything. And it's a very difficult process, and we had to take great precautions and not to trample certain things. And even then, you could, clearly, if you walk through it, you could, clearly, see where our crew came through and where the manpower was used.

But in some of these crop circles, they're pristine. I mean, they're in the middle of a field where there's no way to take a step onto the field without leaving a footprint, and so it's kind of -- it's very eerie. I don't know how, if it was fake, I don't how those very few that I'm talking about were accomplished. I mean, it seems like they did it from straight down, like so, so it's tricky.

MANN: So much is said about crop circles. The research you've done. The research we've done suggests that people say all kinds of things about them. When you were making the movie, were there any set of facts that you tried to be faithful to, or was it just a matter of letting your imagination roam with the basic given of a big circle in a field?

SHYAMALAN: Well, you know, a few things. You know, I tried to be faithful to the idea of like that these things aren't broken when they're bent over. They're just, kind of, gently laid down as if some, like, wind blew them down. So we pointed that out in the movie. But then on other fronts, I, kind of, my own liberties.

Like we put it in corn, and it's not normally found in corn because corn is so thick. It's like, you know, it's like iron, actually, and to kind of knock it over takes a lot of effort. And so, but we -- I wanted it for that labyrinth feeling so that Mel Gibson and Juaquim could be running in this like labyrinth, lost, and it would be a very scary place. So we put it in corn, but that's not, actually, the way it happens. So I did take some liberties. But on the other hand, I, really kind of, tried to stay true to the nature of it.

MANN: How many people did you run across, or how many people did you look up in the course of doing the research? What's your sense of the community of people out there who really study this, who really take it seriously, who really think it's evidence of extraterrestrials trying to talk to us?

SHYAMALAN: Yes, a lot of them need to get a date, but most of them -- there's a couple that are really kind of -- have some points, you know, but I think that, you know, a lot of them need to chill out. Just -- it's a very intriguing phenomenon, but people take it really seriously.

MANN: It is an intriguing phenomenon in another sense, and this connects, frankly, more personally to you and to your work. Some of your movies, this one, the "Sixth Sense," are scary. People go to them knowing they're going to be frightened. Why do you think people want to pay for the privilege of actually being uncomfortable and being scared?

SHYAMALAN: You know, that's -- I always ask that question to myself. Why would you constantly want to have a negative experience? Because it really isn't a negative experience, you know, you want to kind of feel the thrill and wake up. You know, it's like a jolt. You know, you're waking up from this kind of haze of what we go through life, and if we experience emotions kind of in this middle range that you want to feel the spikes of that. And I, also, think for me, I use fear as a kind of way for the characters and for the audience to kind of take stock of what's important to them. And so you -- they look around and they say, well, the loved ones are important, and this is important, and this is who I am, when fear of something.

You know, fear is, basically, the unknown, you know. I'm scared of the unknown. What's behind that door? What the new job is going to be. Whether I, you know, whether I should be with this person. It's all the unknown. That's, basically, what it is, and kind of facing the unknown is a desire that we have, even though we fear it. So in that way, I think it's like what does it feel like to go in a loop on a roller coaster? What does it feel like to be upside down? That's kind of the fear of the roller coaster that we love.

And in science, it's kind of like, if you just take as an example, that when why they're paying tickets to come see it is, you know, I don't know what the movie is like, and I don't know it's going to turn out because I don't know this filmmaker, how this filmmaker, if he's going to end it badly, or if he's going to kill somebody off or what. And that thrill of the unknown and wanting to face it and come out of it, I think you know, gets them to come buy that ticket.

MANN: Do you think that's the same phenomenon which explains why crop circles have taken hold and held on to our imaginations, that people are drawn to weird phenomenon for, essentially, the same reason they're drawn to a good, scary movie?

SHYAMALAN: Yes. I think it's very true because, you know, we go through life and we go, we know this wall is made of bricks, we know the carpet's made of this, and, you know, and the food is prepared this way, but then if there's something unusual, if something we can't explain, we're immediately drawn to it. You know, what was that noise, and in this case, it's a big thing, which is, you know, these symbols in crops. And it's just that little bit of unexplained, that little bit of unknown that makes everybody drawn to it. You know, what if that little unknown is representative of all this other world out there? I think it's a great little door that we go, hey, where is this door going? And we're scared of it, and it is the same reason that they buy the ticket.

MANN: One last question for you. Since making the movie, have you heard from whether crop circle people or more scientifically-minded people, for lack of a better phrase, whether they're thanking you or angry at you for the way you've portrayed this whole debate?

SHYAMALAN: I, you know, I, actually, haven't heard from them, directly, but I know there's a lot of Internet chitter-chatter going on. I haven't been on the Internet to find out, but I'm sure it's all going to filter to me pretty soon. I mean, I try to represent it with respect, you know, as much as my own kind of fictional portrayal of what I though crop circles would be.

MANN: I've got to ask about them because the film does treat it with respect, but also, it laughs at these people in a lot of ways. There are a lot of opportunities where you're drawn to just reflect on how foolish all this really seems.

SHYAMALAN: Yes, I mean, I don't think that you can, you know, for me to make you -- the characters accessible to you and me, I don't think I could to do that unless I acknowledged how weird this subject is and how silly it is. And so that if the characters acknowledge that in the movie and through humor, we use that, then when they do take the step towards belief, you can take it with them because they've, at least, acknowledged the first step of this. Wow! This is really all kind of silly. Then, they go, but wait a second, and then, you go with them.

MANN: M. Knight Shyamalan. The movie, of course, is "Signs." Thanks so much for being with us.

SHYAMALAN: Hey, thanks for having me.

MANN: We take another break and then, return to the serious side of crop circles, actually, to talk to someone who says there isn't one.

Stay with us.


MANN: Crop circles are easily explained. So easily that explanations abound, ranging from spiraling winds in the sky to some kind of geological or magnetic activity underground, military experiments, extraterrestrials, or just plain playful people. None of them seems to entirely answer everyone.

Welcome back.

It's generally agreed that most crop circles are man-made, but could the most elaborate ones all have been made in the middle of the night, in darkness, without attracting attention, without making mistakes?

Michael Shermer joins us, now, because, apparently, he thinks so. The publisher of "Skeptic" magazine and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things" joins us to talk about crop circles.

Thanks so much for being with us. By most people's reasonable estimates, 80 percent of these are made by people who are having fun. Ten or 20 percent, no one seems able to explain. You think those are made by ordinary people, too?

MICHAEL SHERMER, "SKEPTIC": I do. I have no doubt it, and I think it's the same kind of percentage you get with the UFOlogists, the serious ones; although they say roughly 90 percent of all UFO sightings are fully explainable by natural phenomenon, we're in Los Angeles. Let's just use an analogy here. Let's say the LAPD is able to solve 80 to 90 percent of all homicides, every year, and the other 10 to 20 percent are unsolved. Do we assume that these homicides are committed by aliens or ghosts or poltergeists? No! We just realize that they LAPD can't solve all the crimes.

Well, science can't explain all mysteries. We can explain 80 percent of them, or 90 percent of them. But if we have a pattern, if we know that 80 percent are hoaxed, why in the world do we think the other 20 percent are not hoaxed? You can't prove everything. There's, what we call, the residual problem in science. There's always a residue of unsolved mysteries, unexplained phenomenon, anomalies that we just can't explain. And that's OK. That's part of the mystery and excitement of science, but we shouldn't go out of this world for an explanation before we turn to the world to see what we know and what we don't know.

MANN: Well, you make the point very well, but let me ask you about particular evidence that people bring up, and I'm sure you've heard some of this. We heard in that report about how the plants tend to be bent, but not broken, something that's not consistent...

SHERMER: Yes, well, these are -- because these are fresh crops that they're bending, so fresh crops are green. They don't break. They don't snap. You just go up in your local hills and try it. If you have an old, brittle, dead branch, it'll snap. If it's still alive and green, it won't snap. It'll just bend. So that's pretty natural. You would expect that with crops.

MANN: OK. You're convincing me about that. Let me tell you about something that you've probably seen said about these plants, that not only are they bent over at the root level, the entire plant, but that they are changed internally. I've read this over and over again, at the microscopic, cellular level.

SHERMER: Yes, I've heard this, too. I've never actually seen any documented, scientific evidence of this changed molecularly, or whatever. I'm pretty skeptical of that.

MANN: OK. Another thing that's said that not only are the plants visibly different, but the area is different, that when you go visit these places, compasses and electronic devices tend to be troubled by some kind of interference in the electrical or magnetic field. Have you heard that one?

SHERMER: Yes, I've heard it. It's total nonsense, utter nonsense. It's urban legend. It's just story-telling in its best. Look, I think the thing in "Signs" is that it's trying to point out that humans are story- telling, pattern-seeking animals, and that we try to find explanations for mysteries, and that's perfectly OK and perfectly natural. But the problem is that humans aren't perfectly designed to do this.

Sometimes, we find patterns that aren't really there. We make up stories that aren't really true. And the best method ever devised is science for determining which patterns are real and which aren't, which stories have a grounding in reality, and which don't. And it's OK to do story-telling like "Signs" did, but let's not take it too far. Just because there's sort of a spooky mystery with cool music playing behind it doesn't mean it's an extraterrestrial or some mysterious phenomenon. Again, before we go out of this world to say that something's a mystery, let's make sure that it's not in the world.

And as far as I'm concerned with crop circles, it's fully in the world, fully explainable by hoaxes and natural things like that. There's no, really, mystery to be solved. There's plenty of great mysteries out there. This just isn't one of them.

MANN: Why do you think it so intrigues us?

SHERMER: Well, I think because A) we are pattern-seeking, story- telling animals. We do like to look for these things, and the ones that are unsolved are, I guess, in many ways the most intriguing. I think there is a sense of wonder and spirituality that all people have. Whatever you want to call it, a love of the mystery that there's something that transcends the physical here and now, our mundane lives. And it gives us a little, I think, spark of interest in beyond the mundane.

And it's the basis of the religious impulse, that there's something beyond us, something bigger than us. And, certainly, the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence just taps into that. That these aliens are, inevitably, portrayed as almost god-like, certainly more advanced than us, more moral, super intelligent, and that's one of things that, I guess, that sparks my fancy about the crop circles. I mean, the idea that these super advanced, extraterrestrial beings are going to traverse the vast enormous emptiness of inner-stellar space, somehow find us, somehow land here, and after all that, the best they're going to do is leave graffiti in farmer Bob's field in pucker brush, Kansas, at three in the morning...

MANN: Play with our plants.

SHERMER: This is what the aliens are going to do? I doubt it.

MANN: Michael Shermer, author of "Why People Believe Weird Things." Thanks so much for talking with us.

SHERMER: Thanks for having me.

MANN: One last thing before we go, discovered in a field in the U.S. state of Maine, actually, we know who did this one. A fan of CNN talk show host, Larry King, who spent three weeks measuring, marking off and then, stamping down a field of milkweed. The only mystery may be why.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann.





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