The Popularity Paradox

This week I’ve been pondering an apparent paradox: Given the fairly disastrous economic achievements of the current government, how in the world are they able to remain so popular in the polls?

Part of this is surely a lack of confidence in the opposition but even so, I don’t think that is enough of an explanation. The polls are not just saying that a lot of people still prefer the government to the opposition – the polls are saying that a lot of people actually trust the government on economic policy. This is The Popularity Paradox – the fact that the government can be hugely unsuccessful and still retain a surprising level of popularity. This post is my attempt to explain that apparent paradox.

Part I: The First Rule of Politics

The first thing we need to do is break our association between political success and political popularity. Democracy is far from an ideal system – the first rule of politics isn’t “Make things better!” The first rule of politics is “Win the next election!”

Because of this, the popularity of a policy is far more important than its success – the primary goal of government policies is to achieve popularity. You can see this in the way that governments deal with taxes. Sometimes increasing taxes would be sensible but governments know that increasing them is a vote loser, so they don’t get increased or they get increased in strange areas that they hope people won’t notice. Similarly they know that tax cuts are popular so a government might cut income tax before an election, even if it makes no economic sense for it to do so. Popularity is everything.

Do you think the trucks hauling, “Illegal Immigrants Go Home” signs were aimed at illegal immigrants? Was the government really expecting illegal immigrants (who they tell us can’t speak English anyway) would just see these trucks, pack their bags and leave? No. The message on those trucks was not aimed at illegal immigrants at all – it was aimed at voters. It was an attempt to boost popularity for the government by convincing people that illegal immigrants were a huge problem and that the government was implementing a tough solution.

Will this stunt result in fewer illegal immigrants? I can’t see how, but that was never its aim. The aim was popularity and whether or not it actually ends up resulting in fewer illegal immigrants is by the by.

Popularity is not achieved through success. Popularity is achieved by convincing people that there is a problem and then telling them how you’re going to solve it. That brings me nicely on to my next point.

Part II: Partial Problem Solving

Let’s take a look at a generic process for solving a problem. It might look a bit like this:

  • You define the problem you wish to solve
  • You find the underlying causes of the problem
  • You design a solution to address the problem
  • You state clearly how you will measure the solution’s success once it is implemented
  • You implement the solution
  • You measure how well the solution performs against your pre-defined criteria
  • You design and implement improvements to the solution and reassess against your pre-defined criteria (repeat this as necessary)

You might be wondering why I’m boring you with this. Well, one way of looking at a government is as a group of people we put in charge to solve problems in our society. In order for people to have trust in a government, they need to understand both the problems that the government is trying to solve and the solutions they are using to solve them.

Let’s look at an example from the current government:

  • Problem: Immigration is too high and unaffordable in its current state
  • Underlying causes: Immigrants are arriving in huge numbers, taking jobs from British citizens and claiming massive sums in benefits
  • Solution: Clamp down on non-EU immigration. Hold a referendum on EU membership so we might soon be able to clamp down on immigration from within the EU too.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Problem: The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending
  • Underlying Causes: The previous government went on a spending spree that was unaffordable
  • Solution: We need to immediately reduce government spending.

In both of these cases the government clearly defined the problem and the underlying causes and then clearly set out the solution. Both of these policies were popular with a lot of people. Let’s remember though, the seven steps of problem-solving that I outlined above. The government is only performing four of the seven steps. Let’s look at the list again, this time with the steps the government is doing underlined:

  1. You define the problem you wish to solve
  2. You define the underlying causes of the problem
  3. You design a solution to address the problem
  4. You state clearly how you will measure the solution’s success once it is implemented
  5. You implement the solution
  6. You measure how well the solution performs against your pre-defined criteria
  7. You design and implement improvements to the solution and reassess against your pre-defined criteria (repeat this as necessary)

In the second example I gave, the government has spent three years unwilling to adapt a policy that has not even got close to solving the problem of a weak economy. A much better way of doing things would be to admit that the initial policy wasn’t working and adapt it. After all,  the economy is complicated and it is unreasonable to expect every policy you start off with to be perfect and never require adapting. Willingness to adapt a policy based on how well it performs is essential when trying to solve a complex problem.

Those missing steps might help to explain why the government’s solutions are unsuccessful. To understand why they are popular however, we need to look at something I’m going to call The Ignorance of Crowds*.

Part III: The Ignorance of Crowds

When we vote, we are expected to assess the relative merits of a huge number of different policies across many different areas of government. We need to determine what the best policies are in economics, health, education, foreign policy, crime etc etc etc. An economist might be an expert on monetary and fiscal policy but lack the knowledge to make a good judgment on education policies. A teacher might be an expert in education but lack the knowledge of the relative merits of sanctions vs military intervention in Syria**.

A small number of people are experts in one area. An even smaller number are experts in two. I doubt anyone is an expert in more than three. You can see why this is a problem in a situation where a crowd of people needs to each, individually pass judgment on a wide range of complicated subjects.

But why is this important in understanding why a policy can be simultaneously unsuccessful and popular? Have a look again at the steps of the problem solving process that are highlighted (the ones the government is doing) and those that are not. It is quite easy for a non-expert to understand a clearly defined problem. It is also quite easy for a non-expert to understand a clearly defined solution. However it is much harder for an non-expert to assess whether or not a policy is actually succeeding.

So the government defines a problem that the crowd understands (e.g. debt is too high) and defines a solution that the crowd understands (e.g. spending must be cut) but unless an individual has some level of expertise in that area they are forced to rely on the reports of third parties to know whether or not that policy is working. This would not be such a bad thing if the third parties took time to carefully explain how they had reached their judgments so that they could be understood by non-experts but that’s very rare because the third parties from whom people get this information are of course, the media and the politicians themselves.

The Ignorance of Crowds says that as non-experts we can understand a problem that is presented to us and we can understand a proposed solution but it is very hard for us to know how successful that solution actually turned out to be. That means the definition of the problem and the definition of the solution are far more important factors in determining a policy’s popularity than its success.

This explains why the government only worries about certain steps in the problem solving process. The things that make you popular are clearly stating the problem you wish to solve and clearly stating how you want to solve it. Whether it works or not is almost by the by.

Part IV: Phantom Problems

So we’ve looked at how a problem should be solved and seen how and why the government doesn’t do things like that. We’ve seen that a government can take advantage of The Ignorance of Crowds by giving the appearance of solving problems that they are in fact not solving at all and we have seen that solving problems is not their main concern in any case. There is though, another reason for that gulf between popularity and success and this one is far worse than anything I’ve mentioned so far.

In the set of steps for solving a problem that I outlined, you start by defining the problem, then working out the underlying causes and then defining the solution. The government does not do this. What the government does is nothing less than scary.

The government starts with the solution – that is, the policy that they want to implement. They then work backwards to come up with a “problem” that they can use to justify that solution.

Look at the examples I gave:

  • Problem: Immigration is too high and unaffordable in its current state
  • Underlying causes: Immigrants are arriving in huge numbers, taking jobs from British citizens and claiming massive sums in benefits
  • Solution: Clamp down on non-EU immigration. Hold a referendum on EU membership so we might soon be able to clamp down on immigration from within the EU too.

Now, if you were to start at the problem end you would never even get as far as defining this as a problem. Immigration has a clear net benefit to the UK. Immigrants contribute to economic growth, don’t take jobs away from non-immigrants and take less on average than non-immigrants do in benefits. We are better off with immigration than we would otherwise be. The only way you can arrive at the problem that the government defines is by starting from the solution you want to implement (I don’t like foreigners, let’s get rid of them) and then work backwards to define a problem.

This is an example of what I call, a Phantom Problem – that is, a problem that is scary, doesn’t really exist and has been made up purely to justify the “solution” you want to implement.

Let’s look at the other example:

  • Problem: The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending
  • Underlying Causes: The previous government went on a spending spree that was unaffordable
  • Solution: We need to immediately reduce government spending.

The government dislikes public spending. Not, because it caused the financial crisis though, (it didn’t) but because government spending is paid for through taxes and they like low taxes. After all, taxes are a key instrument through which wealth is distributed from the rich to the poor. The government doesn’t like taxes.

But, whether or not you support lower taxes is irrelevant. The fact is that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by public spending – it was caused by irresponsible bank lending. “The UK’s economy is weak because of high government spending” is an example of a Phantom Problem.


Partial Problem Solving explains why government policies are often unsuccessful. The Ignorance of Crowds explains how the government makes unsuccessful policies popular. The phenomenon of Phantom Problems allows a government to arbitrarily create policies around their own ideals that have no real basis for existence. Unsurprisingly, a solution that addresses a Phantom Problem will almost always do more harm than good. We might turn away immigrants that would otherwise have made everyone better off. We might implement spending cuts that further harm an already weak economy rather than strengthening it.

These things together explain how our government can be far more popular than the success of their policies would merit and The First Rule of Politics explains their motivation for doing it. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs but it does at least show that The Popularity Paradox is not really a paradox at all. It’s simply the logical result of a government that is adept at exploiting the weaknesses of the democratic system.

So – benevolent dictatorship, anyone?


* I Googled “The Ignorance of Crowds” and see that different people have already used this term for different meanings. I am using it purely as the definition I give here and not referring to how anyone else might have used it. As Humpty Dumpty said,  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

** I’m not being snooty here –  I count myself among the ignorant. That is the reason I generally avoid education or foreign policy or a whole bunch of other things on this blog. Like anyone else, I am mostly ignorant of most complicated things.


Pictures of Herons


What do you need to take a good photo of a heron? A camera, sure. A heron, definitely. But there’s a bit more to it than that.

If you follow me on twitter you have probably seen, in recent weeks, me posting some of the photos that I’ve taken and a lot of them have involved that magnificent bird, the grey heron. I did some Binging (I don’t use Google anymore, evil bastards) of heron photos and I reckon mine stack up quite well. I therefore thought I’d put down the things I’d learnt – mainly through trial and error. That way, if you decide to take some pictures of a heron, you might have a bit of a head start.


You’ll need a camera that does this:

  • Gives you quick access to adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO and (ideally) focus point
  • Focuses very quickly
  • Has a high frame rate, i.e. can take lots of photos very quickly
  • Shoots at higher ISOs without noticeable degradation in image quality

This almost certainly means an SLR. There are some non-SLR cameras that can do these things but they are insanely expensive. The Fuji X-Pro1 and Leica M9 are examples of this but even they have a limitation that an SLR does not. In addition to the above requirements you need a long lens – basically the longer the better. A heron is a big bird but they are shy as hell and don’t appreciate someone standing right next to them. You might be able to get away with a 200mm lens but 300mm is going to be much more reliable. Most SLR manufacturers offer zoom lenses up to 300mm that are not insanely expensive. Of course, if you have the budget to go above 300mm, even better.


Getting a good portrait shot of a heron is extremely tricky. Even with a long lens you need to be pretty close in order to get their head to fill the frame. Let’s assume you have managed to sneak up close enough. What do you do?

Firstly set your aperture. To get that perfect shot you need every bit of the heron’s head in focus and everything else out of focus. You will be shooting with a long lens so a shallow depth of field should be natural. The problem I actually find is making sure that the depth of field is not too narrow. Herons have long beaks. This means that the tip of the beak can easily be a different distance away from you than the heron’s eye. For a decent portrait you need both to be sharply in focus.

As far as possible you want a perfect side view so that the tip of the beak is the same distance as the eye. Always focus on the eye though – if the tip of the beak is very slightly unsharp you might be able to get away with it. If the eye is slightly unsharp then the image is useless.



The best light for photos is early morning or late evening when the sun is low and the light isn’t harsh. I tend to go out early in the morning at the weekends because Mrs Rabbit likes a lie in anyway. If you’re very lucky you might even be able to get the early morning light behind the heron, which can create a halo effect around it. In this photo the light coming from behind the heron makes the shot – the golden glow of the sun around the head, neck and beak. Without it, it would be fairly dull.


Additionally, if you are taking the photo in very bright sunshine, the white feathers on the heron’s face and neck can look washed out. Early or late in the day is the best time.


Herons tend to spend most of their life doing nothing. They can happily stand motionless for hours in the same spot but if you can catch one doing something you can make a much more interesting photo.

This is demonstrated, albeit brutally, by this shot. A heron I was watching grabbed a new-born duckling and gobbled it up.


There isn’t any sure-fire way to be in the right place when something like this happens. As I say, often herons will just sit doing nothing. But if you spend time watching their behaviour you can start to predict when they are just going to sit there for hours and when they are going to do something. If you watch a heron for five minutes and it takes no footsteps and it does nothing other than preen its feathers there is a good chance it will do nothing for the next hour. If it seems to be scanning the water, walking around, stretching its legs, looking left and right, then it is in active mode and there is a good chance you will observe hunting behaviour or if you’re really lucky a take-off…

In Flight

So you have found your heron, you have got close enough to it, it’s walking about and looking around. There is a good chance you are about to see a take-off. If you can capture that you might get a really special shot. The difficulty is that if the heron does decide to take off, it will do it extremely quickly. You will have no time to adjust your camera settings or even to bring your camera up to your eye. Those things all need to be done beforehand and you just need to wait ready to go, with your finger on the shutter-release. Sometimes you can wait for ages and they never take off.

Sometimes they do…


Heron in flight


Shots like these underline why my recommendations on the type of camera are so important. A heron goes from standing to flying very quickly – you need a quick focusing camera to get a sharp image of what is a rapidly moving target. You also need a camera that can give you a very quick shutter speed in order to freeze the heron in motion. And if your camera takes five shots in the second it takes the heron to fly off rather than two, you multiply your chances of getting a good shot by 2.5. Given how infrequently these opportunities come up, that’s a massive advantage.

Anyway, this is what I’ve picked up through trial and error and I have added a bit more below regarding some camera settings for those who want to try this. These tips are not the be all and end all though. If you have a camera that doesn’t focus very quickly or a lens that doesn’t go to 200mm or 300mm, it doesn’t mean you won’t get a good shot – the tips I have just increase your probability of getting one. The person behind the camera is always more important than the camera itself.

Anyway, if you know a heron that lives near you, why not give this a go? It’s great fun and so rewarding when one of your attempts comes off.

Happy snapping.


A Few Technical Details…


I generally shoot in Manual. That is I manually set both the shutter speed and the aperture. That sounds like a lot of work but if you have an SLR then it will give you very quick access to set these and with a bit of practice it won’t be a problem. I start by choosing the aperture that I need – I want to set it such that I can get a sharp image of the heron but a nice blurry background. After this I set the shutter speed – essentially as quick as possible without hitting an ISO level that will compromise image quality. This will vary from camera to camera but again, with an SLR you should have a lot more flexibility in this respect.


You definitely need your camera set to continuous focusing – i.e. as the subject moves your camera adjusts focus. There are a bunch of settings on my camera that allow me to choose how many focus points are used when doing this. I need more time to play with this to decide which one to use in which circumstances but the basic one of using just 9 points is my default and seems to work very well.

SLRs (and high end compacts and mirrorless cameras) let you select the focus point you want to use. This is really, really useful. If you want to take a portrait shot then you can move the focus point to the heron’s eye. If you want to take a flight shot then you can decide in advance – when this heron takes off, do I want it in the middle of the picture, the left, the right, the top or the bottom?

Another point on focusing. Some SLR cameras have an AF-ON button allowing you to focus with your thumb rather than the more common half-pressing of the shutter release. For me* this works much better – right thumb for focusing and right index finger for taking the photo. This is a lot easier than using one digit for both.


I’m using a Nikon D600 and mostly a 80mm-400mm f4.5-5.6G lens. The long primes will certainly be sharper with bigger max apertures but they are so expensive that they are really only within the budgets of professionals.

*Actually my camera doesn’t have a dedicated AF-ON button but there is a custom setting to assign it to another button, so if yours doesn’t have one, then check the custom settings.