Every now and then you and your friends get invited onto Klyles boat. Don’t try to deny it we have all seen you out there, making fun of everyone whose not on a boat. The last time you were out there did not quite go as planned though. It started like it always did: talking about how your lives had been the last couple of months, making a couple of jokes about how your partners wont let you get those cowboy boots you’ve always wanted and eventually transitioning into Klyle having a jolly good time retelling the story of when he pulled down your pants in front of your entire high-school class. After which you sadistically remind him of how that incident was how you got into a year long relationship with his sister. While everyone else was laughing at Klyles desperate attempts to come up with a retort that doesn’t simply end with him admitting that you two were perfect for each other, you noticed how dark it had gotten.
Stepping out on the deck you all realized that you can no longer see the coast, and judging by the moon above it must already be way past midnight. While you started to prepare for the journey back to the shore, things suddenly became much brighter. As you looked down the staircase into the boat you see flames licking the railings as the wooden steps are consumed. There is no time to figure out what has caused the inferno as the fire has already gotten completely out of control. You make sure to quickly send out a distress signal to the coast guard from an app on your phone before you join the others diving into the cold water. But one person doesn’t dive into the waters, Klyle. The rest of you scream at him to jump down, but he keeps saying that while yes the water would save him from the fire, there is no way of knowing if the coast guard are going to get there before they all freeze to death, or at least get some severe hypothermia. So he is going to stay on the boat and try to put out the inferno. You keep screaming at him but he simply refuses to leave the boat unless you can guarantee that he wont freeze to death, a guarantee that the flames eventually give him.
Now of course this never actually happened. But if you think that no one would ever follow the logical patterns that caused that goof ball Klyle to refuse the chance to save his life; then it is time to talk about the Nirvana Fallacy.
Now why did Klyle choose to stay on the boat? Well lets try and examine his thought process and find out where the problem lies. He was faced with a big problem, the boat was burning. Since it was too late to put out the fire, the only option was to jump down into the water and wait for the coast guard. Klyle did not do this, why? Well there was no guarantee that the coast guard would find them before they froze to death in the cold water, so he might have died anyway. But here is where the problem lies. Since the fire was already out of control, there was no action that would have guaranteed his survival in this situation. This is therefore not a reasonable bar to judge our options by. But Klyle does not realize this and therefore judges jumping into the water as being no better an option than staying on the boat, despite one of these being far superior when judged by how much it increases your likelihood of survival, the variable the options should be judged by.
This act of comparing a solution to a completely unrealistic perfect alternative is what the Nirvana fallacy boils down to. The problem with this is very connected to the phrase “The perfect is the enemy of the good“, as this line of thinking often leads the rejection of ideas that would improve the given situation in favor of finding a solution that does not exist. Thereby making any improvement impossible.
While often applied by mistake, this fallacy is also used in a deliberately dishonest way when attempting to discredit proposals for change. This has happened a lot recently where policies aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 (face masks, social distancing, increased use of hand sanitizers etc) have been criticized for not being 100% effective, when that was never the goal. Another way these proposals have been criticized that falls into the trappings of the Nirvana fallacy is that they are damaging to the economy. While not an invalid thing to bring up it is meaningless on its own as there probably is no way to limit the spread of a virus that will not also impact the economy in a negative way. Therefore the goal should not be to find a solution that does not damage the economy, but one where the public health benefits outweigh the cost.
Don’t let yourself be tricked by perfection. That is how you end up like Klyle, and wouldn’t that be embarrassing.
So, What’s The Gist!?
The nirvana fallacy is the act of dismissing flawed but plausible real world solutions to a problem, because they fail to match a perfect solution that is completely unrealistic.