The US-based National Geographic Channel recently broadcast the crop circle episode of its new series ‘Beyond the Mystery’, after extensive filming – largely with plankers, and only a few researchers – in 2004. So did the research community, in particular the scientific data, get a fair hearing compared to the inevitable bias towards hoaxers? NANCY TALBOTT of the BLT Research organisation thinks not…
Another ‘documentary’ on the crop circle phenomenon has recently been aired here in the US [the European showing is still to be scheduled] on Sunday January 30th at 10.00pm, this one under the auspices of the well-known National Geographic organisation. Since it is generally expected that this organisation will provide accurate, comprehensive information (when such is available) to the public, and present opinions which reflect actual scientific inquiry - and since these standards have eluded this production - I felt I should write what I know about the making of this show.
In the spring of 2004, an independent TV producer called me saying that he had been hired by National Geographic to produce a crop circle show; he said that he knew little about the subject and wanted to learn about the scientific approach to the phenomenon, requesting whatever information I could provide. We had a long talk, in which I outlined the BLT Research Team’s work over the years, providing for him all of the names, credentials and contact information for the many professional scientists involved - people I strongly urged him to contact. In addition to providing info about BLT, we also discussed many other people and organisations which take, or have taken, a serious approach to the study of the phenomenon in several different countries. And these names and contact info were also supplied, with strong encouragement that the producer contact these people.
After a long conversation, the producer stated that National Geographic had given him only a very short time-period in which to produce this show, as well as very limited funds, admitting that he didn’t have the time needed to do a really in-depth evaluation - and then said that he had decided to go to the UK to film some of the “hoaxers” making a circle.
I responded with angst, telling him that shows of this caliber had been done at least a dozen times, and that the public would certainly expect something more professional from National Geographic. He reiterated that he didn’t have much time, that he needed to get “dramatic footage” and, surprisingly, that he “had two kids to feed and needed the money.”
Although I now realised that he had apparently previously decided to shoot his film in the UK, he did indicate that he would get in touch with many of the people I had suggested. He sounded like a nice guy to me, and rational. He was openly of a sceptical bias, and apparently under-the-gun financially, but he sounded genuinely interested in the phenomenon and interested in learning about the scientific work. And, so, I had some hope that he would make the effort to inform himself and, as a result, produce a responsible show. I was definitely left with the impression that he would contact the various professionals I had suggested.
It’s a good thing I don’t hold my breath about these things anymore. As Bertrand Russell once said, “it’s a good thing to have an open mind... just not so open your brains fall out.” What this nice producer actually did was go to the UK so as to hire what the TV show states is the “most expensive” group of acknowledged circle-makers, rent a field on the beleaguered farmer’s property next to Silbury Hill and all sorts of cranes and other equipment... and then spent two weeks or so talking with many of the people in the UK who mechanically flatten crop circles for their own amusement [balanced just slightly with interviews of a very few researchers like Andy Thomas, editor of Swirled News]. I wonder if the President and/or stockholders of National Geographic know that quite a bit of the company’s money was spent hiring hoaxers who, it is stated in the actual show, are criminals involved in a “risky” business (“every time they go into a farmer’s field without permission, they are committing a crime”)?
I thought is was also pretty interesting to note, again in the actual show, that this group of hoaxers did all of the measuring for their National Geographic circle in daylight... and, so far as I could tell, flattened the formation in daylight also… and, over several days. I thought these guys were supposed to do this stuff in the dark?
It was also interesting, in the finished product, to note that the announcer immediately established the bias which permeates the whole show by referring to ALL people interested in actually studying the phenomenon as “believers”, and to realize that NONE of the professional scientists whose names and published papers were provided were even mentioned by name, much less contacted for an interview. It was less interesting and quite depressing to see that only a very few of the scientifically-derived facts (which I provided, at great length, and in detail) were dealt with at all - and these few in a totally superficial manner. And so now I wonder if the august National Geographic incorporates this sort of prejudice into all of its presentations?
At the end of the summer I got another call from the TV producer who, this time, wanted to know if he could use “two or three” of the BLT photos in his production. Since I was aware of how he had spent his time (and his production money) in the UK and by now also knew that he had not contacted any of the scientists or other people I had suggested here in the US and only one or two of the people I had suggested in Europe, I refused permission to use the photos. It seemed clear that he was not interested in representing a balanced approach which included the scientific work, instead opting for superficiality - all that he apparently felt the public required.
I don’t know what was going on down at the National Geographic offices, but I started then to get many calls from him and various assistants trying to convince me to let them use some of the BLT photos. I continued to say “no” because, without interviews with the scientists involved, I felt there was too much risk of the photos being used out of context or in an irresponsible manner, a situation which would not be fair to the scientists, the circles, or the already inadequately informed public.
After many calls back and forth, the producer finally said that, although National Geographic could not afford to travel to the various locations required to interview the scientists, Boston was close and he was willing to interview me. Of course, he had had enough money and several weeks to cover the hoaxers... and I was to be allotted just a few hours... but I thought it was the best offer the scientific evidence was going to get. And given that the show was for National Geographic, I expected professionalism.
My interview lasted three hours. Although I knew the producer expected to simply ask me a few questions, I, realizing that he might not be well-enough informed to ask intelligent questions and would most likely ask instead questions aimed at getting “sensational” answers, put together a very solid two and a half hour lecture which I insisted he film. I covered all of W C Levengood and John Burke’s early plant and magnetic material work (pointing out Rodney Ashby’s magnetic material work in the UK also), then presented the X-ray diffraction study results obtained by Dr Lyengar, Dr Raghavan and Dr Reynolds, and finally described in some detail the BLT studies currently in progress (long-term growth study, the mycorrhizal fungi study, and a re-examination of the magnetic particles in crop circle soils). I believe I presented this information clearly, in depth, and in the context that would have been provided by the various scientists involved.
The producer tried repeatedly to interject questions that did not help me develop the information I was trying to present, which at the time I attributed to his lack of knowledge rather than to any nefarious purpose. And I persevered; as those of you who have seen one of my lectures know, I tend to hammer it home in spite of any distractions. It is my impression that it is the scientific evidence that will eventually make the circle phenomenon available to the larger public - not my (or anyone else’s) personal impressions.
It is my own fault that, at the very end of the interview, I answered one of his questions. He had read on the BLT website my personal account of having actually seen a crop circle form in the Netherlands in 2001 and, after a very brief mention of this event, he asked me for my personal impression regarding the crop circle causative mechanism. Because I had just presented two and a half hours of solid scientific data and discussed at length the hypotheses suggested by several of the professional people, I was sure that this would be the content he would find of interest, rather than any personal remark I might make, and so told him that my experiences over the years had enlarged my perspective to include the possibility that a consciousness of some sort is involved. Thus I joined the ranks of the “believers.”
The final show did make it clear that this was a question I personally was considering - that this was not an idea held necessarily by any of the scientists - but why did this producer, or National Geographic, not feel that the public deserved to hear what the various scientists who have done the actual laboratory research think?
The reason is a very bad one. The work that has been done by BLT and its professional consultants has slowly come to be respected in the crop circle community... and elsewhere also. I, as the most visible spokesperson for BLT, am identified in the public eye with much of the professional scientific work and, if you want to try to discredit the scientific results, but can’t because you have no real ammunition, well, you go after the spokesperson. At the beginning of the show the announcer refers to the BLT work as authoritative (we are called “experts”), but pointedly does not state that the scientific work is authoritative. Indeed, this show doesn’t concern itself with the actual research at all. (Remember, National Geographic couldn’t afford the time or the money to talk to ANY of these scientists. I now wonder if the scientists’ names were deliberately left out to reduce the possibility of lawsuits based on misrepresentation of their work?)
It appears to me that National Geographic indulged their a priori bias and failed to value or take seriously their professional responsibility to the public. I suspect that they did not interview the majority of competent researchers because they had already decided to dismiss the possibility of a real, unknown phenomenon, and I suspect that they mis-used the information provided by the other serious people they did interview. It further strikes me as a very strange and unabashed emotional response to deride the impression that a “consciousness” may be involved in this phenomenon. The magician James Randi was upset enough to suggest that those of us curious about the circles should “get a life.” Of course he said the same thing about the hoaxers... maybe he thinks being a magician is a serious pursuit?
A few final notes. Near the beginning of the show, the suave-sounding announcer, attempting to establish the phenomenon as nothing more than one produced by mechanical flattening of the plants by humans, raises this question: “why don’t the crop circles form in front of witnesses?” Isn’t it curious that the producer of this show KNEW that I HAD seen one form... and yet didn’t mention or go into this? I’ll bet he also knew that other people have seen them form from time to time, and ignored this information also.
At another point in the show their expert “grain doctor” suggests that apical node elongation is due simply a flattened plant’s recovery process - cell elongation caused by the plant’s natural inclination to reorient itself to the light and to gravity. POINT #1: If this were true, why don’t we see apical node elongation in ALL crop circles? (We don’t, you know.) POINT #2: The producer was provided with the BLT control study which clearly demonstrates that the degree of node lengthening documented in mechanically-flattened plants in that study was MARKEDLY LESS than that which has been regularly observed in thousands of flattened crop circle plants. Did you notice that the BLT photo held up by the “grain doctor” to illustrate node elongation did not include the control plants? If the control photo (which was supplied to the producer) had been shown, it would have been clear even to a novice that the 200+% node elongation shown in these samples was massively greater than any elongation caused by cellular development due to natural plant recovery process. POINT #3: The producer was also provided with the information that this node elongation has been documented in STANDING plants inside crop formations -plants in which no “recovery process” ever occurred because they were never flattened.
Why didn’t National Geographic present or discuss the BLT Control Study? Why did they fail to show appropriate control photos? And why did they leave out the information that node elongation has been found in STANDING plants inside crop circles but NOT in control plants outside the formations?
The “grain doctor’s” speculations about expulsion cavities (holes blown out at the plant stem nodes) being the result of “rapid growth” will, I am pretty certain, sound quite lame to the biophysicist who did all this work for 10 years, as will this same grain doctor’s suggestion that no informed plant professional was involved with the research. How then were three papers presenting this research published in peer-reviewed scientific journals? Could it be that W C Levengood’s years of academic study in college and at graduate school, and his laboratory experience and research as an employed professional scientist - not to mention his intensive examination of thousands of crop circle plants and their controls over 12 years in many different countries - are inconsequential? The good “grain doctor” (it was admitted in the show) has NEVER SEEN a crop circle - much less examined any plants taken from one. So, on what basis is he an authority? Because he now has the title of “grain doctor, “ apparently bestowed by National Geographic?
Then one has to look at the fact that the massive ‘XRD’ study was completely ignored, a study which involved four scientists with excellent to superb reputations and credentials, all of whom agree that the data produced is competent and points to the involvement of something other than mechanical flattening as the causative mechanism behind many crop circles. Also ignored was the fact that, again this year, several new scientists have become involved in the BLT investigations. And maybe this is the real problem... as Bertrand Russell also wrote, “What men want is not knowledge, but certainty.”
It takes both courage and intellectual curiosity to pursue the uncertain; it looks to me as if National Geographic has, in this case at least, exhibited neither.
I've gotten a LOT of email from people who saw the National Geographic "documentary", people who are really irritated and want to tell Nat Geo what they think of the show... So here are the two email addresses to deliver YOUR OPINION directly to the people responsible:
Maybe, together, we can irritate them as much as they irritate us..?
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Andy Thomas being interviewed by the Nat Geo crew (photo: HELEN SEWELL)