Dear Straight Dope:
I would appreciate some insight into the case of Edgar Casey, the "Sleeping Prophet." Although Edgar did turn his trance sessions into a money-making venture, what I've read has many elements of a solid story, especially the presence of a disconnected stenographer, and several verifiable accounts of medical treatments. Does the story of Edgar Casey meet with your skeptical approval? --
OK, first things first. Although his name was indeed pronounced "Casey," it’s spelled "Cayce." For those who aren’t familiar with him, here’s some background:
Edgar Cayce purportedly began his psychic career when he began losing his voice at age 21 and the doctors couldn’t do anything about it. He supposedly went into some sort of hypnotic sleep, recommended a cure for himself while in this state, and got better. Since it allegedly worked for him, he began doing the same thing for other people–diagnosing and prescribing cures while in a supposedly altered sleep state. From there he went on to doing readings for people who sent him letters (rather than actually being there) and on general psychic topics including past lives, the nature of the universe, what happened to Atlantis, etc. He claimed that, upon awakening, he did not recall anything he had said. He also claimed another sleeping power: the ability to absorb information from a book place under his head while asleep. Unsurprisingly, this was apparently never tested.
Now, on to the claims.
One problem here, as with most claims of psychic success, is the fairly vague nature of the "psychic" predictions. It’s made worse by the fact that Cayce gave thousands upon thousands of readings–he was bound to get a few right by accident. As with most "psychics," people remember the hits and forget the misses.
I’m not entirely sure what you meant about the stenographer, but, yes, according to The Skeptic’s Dictionary (skepdic.com/cayce.html), a stenographer did take notes during the sessions. However, this has little to do with whether his readings were accurate. "But wait," you might say, "we can look at those reports and see if he was accurate!" Not really. The Skeptic’s Dictionary notes: "Cayce usually worked with an assistant (hypnotist and mail-order osteopath Al Layne; John Blackburn, M.D.; homeopath Wesley Ketchum). According to Dale Beyerstein ("Edgar Cayce: The ‘Prophet’ Who ‘Slept’ His Way to the Top," Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 1996), "these documents are worthless by themselves" because they provide no way of distinguishing what Cayce discerned by psychic ability from information provided to him by his assistants, by letters from patients, or by simple observation. Also, Beyerstein explains, "the transcripts tell only what Cayce said, with no indication of what he said as being true." As the Skeptic’s Dictionary notes, "1n short, the only evidence for Cayce’s psychic doctoring is useless for testing his psychic powers."
For example, Michael Shermer ("Deviations: A Skeptical Investigation of Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment," Skeptic magazine, Vol. 1, #3, Fall 1992) and Martin Gardner (Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science) note that when Cayce was doing readings in the presence of an osteopath, the terminology he used pretty much made sense only from an osteopathic perspective. Coincidence? I think not.
Let’s take a look at Cayce’s alleged psychic diagnostic and healing ability.
Many have claimed that because Cayce had no formal medical background, he could not have diagnosed people and prescribed cures–it must have been special powers. But as already noted, he was often assisted by people with a medical background. In addition, "he was a voracious reader, worked in bookstores, and was especially fond of occult and osteopathic literature" (Skeptic”s Dictionary again). He also knew homeopathy and naturopathy.
As James Randi notes in his classic book, Flim Flam, "It is no secret that his cures were quite similar to the ‘home remedies’ described in the handy medical encyclopedias that were bedside reading in many rural homes in the late 1800s." In other words, he didn’t exactly need psychic powers to know about them. Randi continued, "Beef broth was one of Cayce’s favorite remedies for such diverse diseases as gout and leukemia. Who can fault a nice man who prescribes a cup of hot soup?"
Some of his remedies weren’t as harmless as a cup of soup. He was apparently among the first to recommend laetrile as a cure for cancer. Laetrile is ineffective, but still has a cult following among those who think poison is a miracle drug (it contains cyanide). Some of his other recommendations were "’oil of smoke’ for a leg sore; ‘peach-tree poultice’ for convulsions; ‘bedbug juice’ for dropsy; and ‘fumes of apple brandy from a charred keg’ for tuberculosis" (Skeptic’s Dictionary). In 1926 he prescribed "the raw side of a freshly skinned rabbit, still warm with blood, fur side out, placed on the breast for cancer of that area" (Beyerstein). Yuck.
His diagnoses were about as well-informed as his suggested cures. For example, we have his reading for psoriasis as, "The conditions that exist through the thinning of the walls of the intestines allow the poisons to find expressions in the lymph circulation; thus producing the irritation to and through the epidermis itself" (The Edgar Cayce Website, ecayce.tripod.com, from reading #2455-2, May 21, 1941). Funny, I have psoriasis and my doctor never mentioned thinning intestinal walls to me–nor do any of the medical websites I’ve consulted.
Cayce supporters probably don’t like to talk about his failures in healing members of his own family. According to Beyerstein, Cayce’s cousin, Ike, appealed to him for help but died. And one of Cayce’s own sons died as a baby in 1911.
As if these weren’t bad enough, we have several documented cases of Cayce advising how to cure dead people, in connection with readings using letters they sent to him. In these cases, the letters had been written while the person was still alive, but by the time he made his psychic "diagnosis," they were dead. Whoops! Of course, his followers have excuses for this type of thing, but it seems to me if he’s getting his information through magical means, he should know this particular person is beyond help.
Those excuses apparently followed every obvious screw-up. Mind you, most of his failures weren’t so obvious. As James Randi notes in Flim Flam: "The rationalizations that Cayce and his supporters used to explain his numerous and notable failures are prime examples of the art of evasion."
He later notes, "Cayce was fond of expressions like ‘I feel that’ and ‘perhaps’–qualifying words used to avoid positive declarations. It is a common tool in the psychic trade. Many of the letters he received–in fact, most–contained specific details about the illnesses for which readings were required, and there was nothing to stop Cayce from knowing the contents of the letters and presenting that information as if it were a divine revelation. To one who has been through dozens of similar diagnoses, as I have, the methods are obvious. It is merely a specialized version of the ‘generalization’ technique of fortune-tellers."
Let’s move on briefly to some other areas where Cayce tried to use his vast psychic powers. One example discussed in detail by Randi is Cayce’s extraordinary failure in divining information about the Lindbergh kidnapping case. I bet you won’t find too many Cayce supporters talking about that one.
Another failure was his attempt to find buried treasure. After several weeks of trying, with the additional help of a well-known dowser, he found nothing. The only thing they had to show for their work was excuses. Some of these are hysterical, such as the one about ghosts of Native Americans and pirates playing tricks with the psychic energy, or the claim that the treasure had been there but was already dug up by somebody else, or maybe it would be buried there at some future date. It’s amazing that his magical powers could supposedly diagnose somebody from across the country, but couldn’t tell the difference between the past, present, and future.
Another amusing prediction was that the U.S. would discover an Atlantean death ray (as in, one from Atlantis) in 1958. I suppose his supporters might claim the government actually did find it, but it’s hidden away with the aliens from Roswell due to its dangerous nature.
The point is that, as with every other well-known "psychic" I’ve seen/heard about/read about, the claims simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. You can read about similar cases in previous Staff Reports:
"If Psychics Are Frauds, Why Do Police Keep Asking Them for Help?"
"Did Psychic Jeane Dixon Predict JFK’s Assassination?"
"Did the U.S. Government Fund Psychic Research?"
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.