The 1023 campaign is a UK based organization whose purpose is to raise awareness of the actual claims of homeopathy. The name is a reference to Avogadro’s number (6.02214179×10^23), which is the number of atoms or molecules of a substance in one unit called a mole. This is an important basic concept in chemistry, for it means that there are a finite number of bits of a substance in any solution, which further means that solutions cannot be infinitely diluted. You cannot have fractions of a molecule of any substance. There is therefore a dilutional limit – a point beyond which if you further dilute a solution you are increasingly likely to have removed all of the original substance.

Homeopathic preparations frequently use serial dilutions that vastly exceed this dilutional limit. This is a central fallacy of homeopathy (what homeopaths call a “law” of homeopathy). Samuel Hahnemann, who invented the fiction of homeopathy, knew about the dilutional limit but believed that substances gave their magical essence to water when diluted. Modern homeopaths believe this too, but in order to make their nonsense more marketable to a 21st century culture a tad more used to science (or at least scientific jargon) than Hahnemann’s, they have desperately tried to wrap “magical essence” in sciencey technobabble.

The 1023 campaign’s main purpose is public awareness. It appears that the best tool defenders of science-based medicine have against homeopathy is simply to make the public aware of what it actually is. I have not found any good surveys that quantify public beliefs on the subject (sounds like a good project) but it is my subjective experience (and that of many of my colleagues) from talking to countless patients and acquaintances that many if not most people are simply not aware of what homeopathy actually is. The term is often conflated with herbal or “natural” remedies. Shock and disbelief is a common reaction to explanations of what homeopaths actually claim.

Therefore there is much to be gained by raising public awareness of what homeopathy is, so at least it doesn’t get a free pass out of simple ignorance. As part of this mission the 1023 campaign has had a public event in which groups around the world commit “homeopathic suicide” by massively overdosing on a homeopathic product. This is a stunt, but it is effective in garnering media attention, and so meets the mission of public awareness.

There is now a new event planned:

While international participation is yet to be announced, the challenge will culminate in a demonstration in Manchester on February 6th, at the ‘QED: Question. Explore. Discover. event, with over 300 protesters participating the largest ever single demonstration against homeopathy.

They also wisely add a word of caution – not all homeopathic remedies are highly diluted. Some products “cheat” by including measurable amounts of an active ingredient, and so a real overdose is possible. Before attempting such a demonstration, therefore, one should be sure that the product is truly “homeopathic” and contains, essentially, nothing.

These efforts are essential as the amount of misinformation available to the public about homeopathy and other medical pseudoscience is immense. For example, we have complained extensively about the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and their soft promotion of nonsense. On their homeopathy page, for example, they write:

If You Are Thinking About Using Homeopathy

* Do not use homeopathy as a replacement for proven conventional care or to postpone seeing a doctor about a medical problem.
* Look for published research studies on homeopathy for the health condition you are interested in.
* If you are considering using homeopathy and decide to seek treatment from a homeopath, ask about the training and experience of the practitioner you are considering.
* Women who are pregnant or nursing, or people who are thinking of using homeopathy to treat a child, should consult their health care provider.
* Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of all you do to manage your health. This will ensure coordinated and safe care. For tips about talking with your health care providers about CAM, see NCCAM’s Time to Talk campaign.

The first recommendation is very important, but the fact is that once in the hands of a homeopath there is no guarantee that homeopathic nostrums will not be used instead of effective medicine. Homeopaths believe that their magic water works for treating and preventive real disease, and they are often hostile to science-based medicine. For example, there in an ongoing scandal regarding the use of homeopathic products instead of effective treatment for malaria. So this recommendation is like saying, “If you are going to play 3-card monte on the streets of New York, be sure you don’t get cheated,” when the only effective advice is, “don’t play, it’s a scam.”

The second recommendation to look for published research is ridiculous – while I am all in favor of patients being well-informed, it is not reasonable advice to tell the average patient to do the research for themselves to determine which treatments are safe and effective. That is the job of professionals and professional organizations. The body of research on homeopathy is large and complex, and it takes time and expertise to sort through it and come to a meaningful conclusion about what the evidence says. It seems like the NCCAM is trying to avoid doing this themselves – but isn’t that part of their mission? In fact experts have combed through the research, such as this review by Edzard Ernst, and have found that the clinical evidence shows that homeopathy does not work for any indication. Shouldn’t the NCCAM just state that?

Next they suggest you ask about the training and experience of the practitioner. But training and experience in nonsense is meaningless. There is no evidence that the training and experience of a homeopath means anything, or allows them to effectively treat any condition. This is akin to advising that one seek the council of only experienced psychics, or well-trained astrologers. And make sure you only consult certified numerologists.

The caution regarding women who are pregnant or nursing makes it sound like there is some potential effect from homeopathic treatment, which there isn’t (unless, as I stated above, they are not really homeopathic and sneak in some actual drugs). This recommendation also makes it sound like if you are not pregnant or treating a child you don’t have to consult your health care provider.

The last recommendation is the only one that is reasonable – patients should disclose their use of all treatments to their physicians. Although again, it is carefully worded to imply that the primary purpose is “coordinating” (or integrating) fake treatment with real medicine.

These recommendations, from a government agency allegedly dedicated to science and health, are an embarrassment. Here is what the recommendations should say:

If You Are Thinking About Using Homeopathy

* Do not use homeopathy. It is dangerous nonsense.

I much prefer the 1023 summary of what homeopathy is to the NCCAM’s.

Homeopathy is an unscientific and absurd pseudoscience, which persists today as an accepted form of complementary medicine, despite there never having been any reliable scientific evidence that it works.

Nuff said.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.