Interfering Bastards

I came across this in the Telegraph a day or two back.

Back in the dark ages of early 2011, the Cabinet Office began grappling with one of the most serious issues facing our age: loft insulation. A curious anomaly was emerging in official statistics — that no one wanted it. Huge subsidies had been ploughed into lagging and rolls of fibreglass; there were generously-incentivised installation schemes, that would pay for themselves within months. It was, to use non-Whitehall patois, a no-brainer. And yet public adoption rates were minuscule. Policymakers were baffled.

Step forward, then, a new Government team, with a new way of thinking.

Using research, plus a smidgen of common sense, they quickly identified the problem: laziness. More specifically, the sheer hassle of clearing an attic before you can insulate it. This alone was deterring us from taking up, effectively, a free lunch. And so, in a pilot trial in September 2011, they suggested a simple solution: that insulation firms offer to clear the lofts first, and dispose of our unwanted junk. In weeks, the uptake increased threefold, even though it cost the customer more.

The government team was the Behavioural Insights Team, better known as The Nudge Unit. And on this occasion they were trying to get people to install loft insulation.

I have a slight personal interest in thermal insulation. I’ve written about this before, but about 40 years ago, as a student, I worked out that in the UK the optimum thickness of polyurethane foam cavity wall insulation was about 6 inches. Or maybe 4 inches. So what did I do? I hotfooted it to the people who wrote the UK’s Building Regulations, of course, and told them they should require 6 inches – or maybe 4 inches – of cavity wall insulation in new buildings. It would save a lot of money, I jabbered.

They were very kind and considerate, and gave me a cup of tea, and pointed out that, while they were quite sure my calculations were correct, they wouldn’t feel justified in requiring people to include such amounts of insulation if there wasn’t a good health and safety justification for doing so, however great the savings might be. One of them added, as an afterthought, that such requirements might even be construed to be a ‘a tad fascistic’.

I chewed over that last remark, until in the middle of the night few weeks later I sat up in bed, and thought, ‘He’s right! It is fascistic! We shouldn’t be forcing people by law to do things which will save them money. Or save them anything. People should build houses any way they like. If they want to build them out of tissue paper and string, that’s up to them.”

A few weeks later, the draft of the latest version of the Building Regulations appeared on my doorstep. With chagrin, I read that one of its new proposals was for a half inch of insulation to be included in cavity walls. They had acted on my proposal!

Anyway, since then fascists have clearly taken over writing not only the Building Regulations, but pretty much everything else as well, and we now have an entire government team trying to figure out ways to coax and cajole people into doing things that somebody else thinks will be “good for them”. In fact the entire purpose of government has shifted from us telling them (via the ballot box) what’s good for us, to them telling us what’s good for us – and using our taxes to amplify the message.

It’s a casual, unthinking fascism that comes of focusing on one single measure. In my case, 40 years ago, the measure was heat loss. And when you look at things in this sort of one-dimensional way, you tend to disregard everything else. Heat loss becomes the only thing that matters.

But there are all sorts of other ways of cutting heat losses than filling walls with foam insulation. These days I live in an almost completely unheated flat, but I keep myself warm – and that’s really the only thing I want to keep warm. And I do it very largely by wearing as much indoors as I do outdoors. In fact, slightly more, because when I’m out and about, I’m usually walking briskly, and that warms me up a fair bit. But when I’m at home, I do next to no brisk walking at all, so I need to wear a bit more. I often think that there’s probably a market for clothes with built-in heating elements, and smart insulation. Such clothes would allow air temperatures inside buildings to fall to near zero, and windows to be kept open as well (I always keep a window or two slightly open). and entirely dispense with any need not only for heating systems, but also for roof and wall insulation too.

Except that now you are required by law to have 1 or 2 inches of wall insulation in your walls (or maybe they’re up at the full 6 inches by now), and so you’ve effectively been locked into the current heating paradigm. Because somebody knows ‘better’ than you do what’s good for you.

It’s a bit like someone not only whittling away at the range of cars on sale, but also telling you what’s the right car for you. It’s been designed by experts, and it’s called a Trabant. And it’ll be Good For You. Yes it will.

Another one-dimensional measure is ‘health’. It’s the only thing that matters. But while heat loss is a tightly defined quantity, ‘health’ is rather more ill-defined, and seems to have become conflated with longevity, so that the healthier you are, the longer you will live. And of course the Nudge Unit is using the longevity measure:

Health is a key focus, in fact: more than half the years of healthy life lost are due to behavioural factors. So again, the unit works with human nature. An anti-smoking pilot, started in early 2011 in conjunction with Boots, offered rewards to those who signed a contract to quit smoking. This year the unit is looking at placing signs at supermarket checkouts, emphasising how much fruit and vegetables the average shopper buys. And it will soon confront the thorny issue of organ donation — by prompting the question not only on driving licence applications, but also on social media such as Facebook.

Then there are, as Halpern puts it, the “quirky” subjects. Smokeless cigarettes, for example. While many countries, unsure about their health risks, have moved to ban them, Halpern’s team thinks that’s a mistake. It’s far better, they argue, to ask smokers to adopt a similar behaviour that, while possibly not risk-free, is less dangerous than smoking proper, than to ask them to quit completely.

“If you give someone a decent alternative, it’s a lot easier,” says Halpern. “There are 10 or 12 million smokers in Britain, of which roughly half die from their habit. So even with a 20 per cent substitution, you’re talking about a million lives.”

I have no idea where this idea that “half of all smokers die from their habit” comes from. By this I suppose it’s meant that “half of all smokers die from ‘smoking-related diseases'” like cancer and heart disease. But what disease isn’t ‘smoking-related’ these days? Even cervical cancer, which is now well known to be caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), is still described as ‘smoking-related’. So why don’t they just go the whole hog and just say that “all smokers die from their habit”?

Anyway, clearly the psychologists in the Nudge Unit have drunk the kool-aid, and accept it as a matter of fact that half of all smokers die from their habit. But other considerations are filtering through.

But then, not every “nudge” has proved popular. Halpern himself hit the headlines last February when he suggested the elderly should move into smaller homes to prevent loneliness, and be encouraged to return to work.

Good to know that loneliness is becoming another problem for these know-alls to address. As it happens, the smoking ban that they demanded – in order to improve ‘health’ – has resulted in more or less the complete destruction of my social life, while having zero impact on my tobacco consumption. And no, I don’t want to go back to work in some office somewhere, just so I can huddle outside with all the smokers in the rain and wind, and swap tips about ways to keep warm.

But this must always be the result when any single measure – be it heat loss or ‘health’ – comes to dominate thinking, to the exclusion of all else. It doesn’t matter whether it’s heat loss or health or human contact: once one of them becomes an idol that all must worship, all the rest must suffer.

One day when I have lots of friends again, friendship and community will probably have been elevated into idols, and we’ll probably all be freezing cold, and dying of diphtheria or tuberculosis. Which we wouldn’t be, if these interfering bastards had just left us alone to strike our own balance.


About Frank Davis

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27 Responses to Interfering Bastards

    • beobrigitte says:

      “I told him that Harold always smoked a pipe on public, on platforms, on Any Questions, if he was appearing in public, that was his father figure image.”

      Actually, yes. As a child, getting every now and then into a bit of trouble, I was always relieved, when I saw the person dealing with me was a pipe-smoker.

  1. magnetic01 says:

    After a second reading of a new city ordinance during the regular meeting of the Williamsburg City Council (Kentucky) Monday, council members voted
    4-0 to approve the smoking ban.

  2. beobrigitte says:

    Thanks for this, Frank. Loft insulation has been one of my most entertaining “nudge unit” interference a few years back.
    Some guy knocked on my door about loft insulation, gave me a run down on how much the government would pay towards it, so I said: “Sure, do come in. Upstairs please.” This guy wandered about and then asked me, how I do get into my loft. My reply: “I don’t. Because I don’t have one. However, the sloped ceilings could be converted into smaller, loft-like storage sections, which would aid to insulate the house. How much did you say the government pays towards it?”
    Needless to say, the guy fled.

    And it will soon confront the thorny issue of organ donation — by prompting the question not only on driving licence applications, but also on social media such as Facebook.

    The German media seems to be currently on a run of this. There are hate campaigns using an article about a cystic fibrosis recipient as well as a recipient dying of lung cancer.
    The media directed public is being led to cry out for “smokers should not be allowed to donate”.
    The British have become much more cautious of “nudging” against smokers donating. Smokers do think about bad press adding to their beloved ones’ grief. 10 years ago I would have signed up without second thought when renewing my road tax.
    As a smoker, being daemonised, I do now need to think about my family should anything go wrong with my donated organ; immuno-supressants cause the recipient’s susceptibility to succumb to e.g. viral infections, some of which are known to cause cancer. (see Henrietta Lacks)
    It is a mine field! And a subject needing to be raised!

  3. Junican says:

    There is a paradox.
    1. Almost no smokers die from ‘smoking related diseases’ (only 1000 doctors in the Doctors Study out of 25,000 deaths were caused by lung cancer)
    2. Almost everyone who dies, dies from a ‘smoking related’ disease.

    What is the common illogicality? It is ‘smoking related’.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      Cousin it really becomes apparent the nazis took old age diseases and claimed them to be smoking diseases long ago. Seeing that nearly all LC is in the 80 year old bracket!

      Then we find the nazis took second hand smoke and used normal physiological changes in the body and claimed them disease causing via shs.

  4. Margo says:

    Lovely post, Frank. Home insulation is one of my gripes, too. I fell for the loft/cavity wall process a few years ago – offered free because I’m old. Should have said no, because I’ve always liked fresh air. Load of rubbish. Ended up with a totally sealed house except for a bloody great hole in the wall (they called it a vent), which they had to do because I had a gas fire – health and safety regs. I never use the gas fire (too expensive). I’ve blocked up the hole as best I can. I do much the same as you – open window all year round, and lots of clothes (2 dressing gowns and fingerless gloves – that’s my usual winter outfit for indoors). Not many people come to see me these days. Those who do know to keep their coats on.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Home insulation actually does make economic sense if you’re heating your house. But I find most homes too warm. They tend to send me to sleep.

      (2 dressing gowns and fingerless gloves – that’s my usual winter outfit for indoors).

      I wear an abaya. It’s one of those thick, heavy gowns that reach all the way down to the floor. They’re worn in Arab/Muslim countries.

      I bought my first one in Luxor, Egypt, in 1990, rather unwillingly, just to please my Egyptian guide. One winter, when I was shivering in my room, I remembered it, and dug it out of the drawer it was in, and put it on. It was beautifully warm, and I wore it day in and day out thereafter, until it became torn and threadbare after a few years.

      Since then I’ve always made sure that I have an abaya. In fact, I need to get another one soon.

  5. smokervoter says:

    Never a dull moment.

    Yesterday while innocently listening to Rush Limbaugh on the big, bad KFI radio station in LA, the show was interrupted to follow the unfolding saga of the rogue cop turned killer on the loose down here in SoCal.

    It turned out he was holed up in the very nearby mountains and specifically in an area I know well. It’s an area I have have ridden many times on my dirtbike. Very nice trail, woodsy and piney but not so dense and mossy-ferny as to make it unridable.

    For four hours we alternately heard that he was in a stolen truck, on foot, in a massive shootout, headed for Mexico, headed for my town.

    As you’ve no doubt read, he ended up incinerated inside a big cabin in the snow. Yes, it snows in SoCal, there are mountains here, big mountains.

    Here’s the good part. By the time it all ended, my favorite anti-nanny disc jocks John & Ken were at the mics. The 30-something news girl with the ever mono-ebullient delivery announced that it was all over and a reporter could tell because “two deputies were having a cigarette outside the crime scene” a sure sign that things had finally relaxed.

    This news girl couldn’t resist adding “oh, how unhealthy!”. Either John or Ken went ballistic on her over the comment. “Can we go one-hour in this god forsaken country without ragging on smoking!!!! Really!!! Just stoppppppp!!!! Will Ya!!!” He referred to her as Ms Bloomberg.

    No doubt a million people were tuned in and every one of them heard it loud and clear. It was beautiful.

    The news girl (don’t trust anyone under 30) actually came back with “I would want a smoke myself after all they’ve been through”

    Thank You.

    • smokervoter says:

      Typos galore. First: killer-on-the-loose (not losse)

      Second: woodsy and piney but notso dense

      Third: It’s an area I have ridden many times

      Fourth: mono-ebullient, not ebiullent. Ya’ know what I mean by mono-ebullient? Overly gushy but with a adenoidal, monotone drone. Ugh.

      Just one more thing here. When I was 30-something I rarely thought about health issues, I was indestructible. Obsessing about cancer, heart attacks and life expectancy was the domain of the old fogeys. This is a direct result of the health and safety culture initiated by Glantz and Koop and Banzhaf. They can go straight to hell.

      I’m older than that now, but still not health paranoid. That’s for sissy’s as far as I’m concerned.

      • Margo says:

        I keep doing typos on this site, smokervoter – it’s because we write with passion. I apologise for all mine and for those I’ll probably do in the future.
        Couldn’t help noticing, when I saw the exciting footage of that shoot-out on my telly yesterday, that it coincided with the President making a speech about guns!

      • gimper30 says:

        …sissys and wussas!!!!!

    • Frank Davis says:

      my favorite anti-nanny disc jocks John & Ken

      Were they the ones who read one of my Prop 29 posts?

      • smokervoter says:

        Sorry about the delayed response, there’s an 8-hour time difference between our universes. I tend to sleep at night.

        Yes, they did read one of your Prop 29 posts. They sent an email back to me saying Good Stuff, great writer, etc. I’ve sent them several of your posts. While neither of them smoke, they simply despise touchy-feely paternalist government and interfering bastards to the bone. They were staunchly against Prop 29 and celebrated its defeat. Considering the vast size of their listening audience, I think it was a factor in L.A.’s 50-50 split on the issue. As you might recall, Glantz blamed the L.A. vote for its defeat.

        The fact that they’re wildly popular and SoCal based is testament to the radical differences in mindset that exist between NorCal and SoCal. They’d run them out of town on a rail up there.

        John & Ken Show – Wikipedia

  6. Rose says:

    Now here’s an improbable statement.

    Young smokers in Scotland grows by 40 a day

    “Thousands of children in Scotland have taken up smoking since a public consultation on introducing plain packaging for cigarettes ended six months ago, campaigners said.

    Anti-smoking campaigners ASH Scotland and other health groups have called on the Scottish and UK governments to introduce legislation on plain packets for tobacco products in efforts to make them less attractive to children.

    But since a consultation on the issue ended six months 
ago, the groups said 7,500 children under 16 would have started smoking in Scotland, with 
the number growing by around 40 a day.”

    I mean, you can see what they are up to, but how could they possibly know?
    Unless they have secretly micro-chipped all the children in Scotland with a little transmitter that constantly sends a chemical analysis of their blood CO back to some hidden lab.
    Nevermind, some politician is undoubtedly going to quote this number as gospel.

    Mind you, I can imagine that some people will have taken up smoking precisely because anti-tobacco has gone on and on about it so long.
    After all, a quick look on the internet and the real plant chemistry and in context, is not that hard to find these days.

    • beobrigitte says:

      Are the anti-smoking zealots still pressing for plain packaging in Scotland?

      So far:
      The smoking ban/smoking cessation clinics/hiding tobacco products behind grey screens in supermarket/floptober have not led to a significant reduction in the number of actual smokers. A lot of people will simply lie when asked with respect to smoking.

      Mind you, I can imagine that some people will have taken up smoking precisely because anti-tobacco has gone on and on about it so long.
      They repeat the same over and over and over again – people have become resistant to the propaganda.
      A lot of them actually are much aware that they and their friends and family are still ALIVE and WELL.
      And that anti-smoking zealots do not live forever, either.
      Perhaps we shouldn’t mention the latter to these anti-smoking zealots, it would destroy this little bubble they live in.

  7. Steve Kelly says:

    –So why don’t they just go the whole hog and just say that “all smokers die from their habit”?–

    I think they (the Anti Regime) are close to that at this point. I’m not sure that, if you got run over by a car, they wouldn’t say you were probably crossing the street on your way to buying cigarettes, so you died from your habit.

    If you’re 75 & die from a heart attack, & you smoked, smoking killed you, but if you didn’t smoke, you just plain died. Unless somebody smoked while visiting your childhood home one day 70 years previously. In that case you died from secondhand smoking.

    Incidentally, if you’re fat, and have that heart attack at 75, you died from being fat. If you’re fat & smoked, you died twice, once because of each of the two deadly hazards. You died a third time if that smoker visited you 70 years ago. Secondhand smoke, after all, is more hazardous than is smoking itself, as we all know.

    They really do this kind of figuring. Several years back the Anti-fats in the US decided to take on the Anti-smokers. They said fat killed about the same 400,000 annually in the US that smoking was supposed to kill. The Anti-smokers, who had more grant money than did the Anti-fats at that time, flew into a tirade. So the weaker Anti-fats caved in, and revised their 400,000 to 25,000; they had made a slight computational error, they explained, with apologies to the bigger bullies of the Anti-smoker legion. The Anti-fats have since garnered a lot more sway so they’re escalating their 25,000 again. They may be back to 400,000 by now for all I know.

    There have been about 2.5 million deaths annually in the USA in recent times but of course that means nothing to the Regime. They’ll be happy to keep escalating various death tolls by individual “lifestyle factors” until they figure out that 2.5 million is equal to 10 million or more. Pretty soon we’ll all be dying at least three times.

  8. Steve Kelly says:

    P.S. to my previous post: Here’s an article from a few years back ( that outlines the comical adjustment of that time (by the distinguished authorities) from 400,000 down to 25,000 annual US fat deaths. Another quick internet check I just did suggests the Anti-fats have since gradually re-inflated the 25,000 to about 300,000. That’ll get ’em more grant money so they’ll probably get back to 400,000 or more fat deaths in no time. Here is the real computation: Public Health = Crazy Lying Bastards.

  9. melinoerealm says:

    I think one reason governments played along with the antismoking nuisance, is that they believed (or were convinced anyway) that smoking has some cost, like installing air filters or cleaning up some more, or having to repaint office walls more often… I can’t imagine all the details, but perhaps it played a role too.

  10. melinoerealm says:

    ” Wilson’s pipe is to be frozen out, just as fallen members of the Soviet Politburo were removed from photographs. I call it pathetic. One wonders if the BBC would deprive Churchill of his cigar. It would be no surprise if it did. After all, the Pipe Smoker of the Year award was discontinued in 2004, for fear that it contravened laws against the advertising of tobacco. ”

    Not just inteefering, insane as well…

  11. briartuck says:

    Good ‘exchange’ on Alan Massie’s pipe-smoking blog at the Telegraph:

  12. james higham says:

    It’s the old story – can’t leave well enough alone. Downunder they did similar forty years ago [loft insulation] so Britain has largely escaped this mafia so far.

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