The nirvana fallacy: An imperfect solution is often better than no solution

In this post, I want to briefly explain and discuss a logical blunder known commonly as the “nirvana fallacy.” This fallacy occurs when you suggest either that a solution should not be used because it is imperfect or that a solution should not be used because there is some underlying issue that is not being addressed, but you fail to provide a plausible alternative. That may seem a bit confusing at first, so I will use several examples that are commonly used by opponents of science.

Let’s start with one of the most basic and most obvious examples. Anti-vaccers often like to claim that we should not vaccinate because vaccines aren’t 100% effective. This is an extremely clear cut instance of the nirvana fallacy, because the fact that something isn’t 100% effective does not mean that we should not use it. Partial effectiveness is still better than no effectiveness. Indeed, almost nothing is 100% effective. For example, seat belts, helmets, condoms, parachutes, etc. are all less than 100% effective, but they are still very useful. Even so, a life-saving medical marvel like vaccines doesn’t need to be 100% effective to be useful, because every life that is saved is important.

Now let’s look at a slightly more complex example: the peer-review system. This is the system that scientific papers have to pass before being published, and it is admittedly imperfect. Indeed, I have devoted numerous posts on this blog to problems with it (for example here, here, here, and here). This has led some to suggest that it is worthless and should be abandoned entirely. In reality, however, an imperfect quality control system is still better than no quality control system at all. For example, we can all agree that a quality control system at a candy bar facility that limits cockroach legs to one per every ten chocolate bars is better than no quality control system at all (note: those aren’t actual statistics). Even so, the peer-review system is imperfect, and bad papers do sometimes get through, but an awful lot of bad papers never make it.

This brings me to an important point about nirvana fallacies: if you are going to argue that something should be abandoned because it is imperfect, then you must simultaneously propose a more effective alternative. To go back to my chocolate bar example, there would be nothing wrong with saying, “we should stop using the current method that limits cockroach legs to 1 per 10 bars, and switch to method B, which limits legs to 1 per 20 bars.” It is, however, invalid to simply say, “the current quality control system doesn’t stop every cockroach leg (i.e., it isn’t 100% effective), therefore we should remove the quality control altogether.” Even so, if you can propose a better alternative the current peer-review system, then by all means do so, but it is ridiculous to argue that we should either let any “study” pass as valid science or just abandon science altogether.

A similar example often occurs in climate change debates. I frequently encounter people who admit that we are probably causing the climate to change, but they argue that we will never be able to curtail our greenhouse gas emissions in time to truly stop climate change, therefore we shouldn’t bother to do anything. Once again, however, an imperfect solution is better than no solution. Yes, we probably won’t be able to fully prevent climate change, but we can prevent the worst consequences of it (Schleussner et al. 2016), and that makes it worth taking action.

Another version of this fallacy also occurs during climate change debates, and it can be summarized as, “but not everyone else will do it.” For example, I often talk to Americans who argue that America should not try to limit its fossil fuel use because even if America switched to renewable energy sources, many other countries wouldn’t, so there is no point. Once again, the problem is that even if America was the only country to take climate change seriously (which is currently almost backwards of reality), that would still have an impact on the amount of warming that occurs. Further, the actions of others have no bearing on your own responsibility. In other words, the fact that everyone else is doing something unethical does not mean that it is ok for you to do it (yes, I know that was a philosophical argument not a scientific one, but I think that it is relevant here).

stick figure meme blue logical fallacy GMO golden rice

An example of the nirvana fallacy

A final variant of the nirvana fallacy occurs when you argue that a solution should not be used because it does not address some underlying issue. A good example of this comes from GMOs. Despite all of the anti-GMO propaganda, not all GMOs are about money. Some, such as golden rice and GMO bananas, are being developed solely as humanitarian endeavors. These GMOs are rich in vitamin A, which is currently lacking in the diets of some developing countries. Anti-GMO activists often respond to this by saying that the vitamin deficiency in developing countries is actually just a symptom of poverty, and those deficiencies would go away if we took care of economic inequality and food distribution. Really think about that response for a minute. They are actually arguing that all that we have to do to fix the problem is solve world hunger and poverty. Sure, fixing those things would solve the vitamin problem, and we should be trying to fix those problems, but we clearly aren’t going to find the solution any time soon. In contrast, we could be using vitamin rich GMOs within a few years or even months. Asking people who are suffering and even dying from vitamin deficiencies to wait for us to fix world hunger rather than using a GMO is absurd. In other words, it is true that the GMOs don’t address the underlying issue, but the underlying issue is a nearly impossible problem to solve. Therefore, we should use the solution that is available to us, even though it’s not perfect.

In short, an imperfect solution is generally better than not having any solution at all. Therefore, it is generally not valid to argue that a solution should not be used simply because it is imperfect or incomplete, unless you can provide a feasible and superior alternative.

Literature cited
Schleussner et al. 2016. Differential climate impacts for policy-relevant limits to global warming: the case of 1.5C and 2C. Earth Syst. Dynam. 7:327-351.

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13 Responses to The nirvana fallacy: An imperfect solution is often better than no solution

  1. billboe says:

    This seemed to me like it was mixing arguments: “Despite all of the anti-vaccine propaganda, not all GMOs are about money.” I don’t think I saw vaccines mentioned elsewhere in the article?

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  2. autistasangeles says:

    Reblogged this on autistasangeles.

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  3. melindavalentine says:

    Senate. Yesterday. This. :_(

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  4. Björn Jansson says:

    Nuclear power.

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  5. Good article. However, >your< nirvana is a couple of cases where GMOs are potentially helpful. You do not address the main arguments against them here.
    The first is NOT that they are solely for making profit.
    The first is that "Science" and "Technology" are not equivalent.
    Science does not produce radiation. Nature does that. However, technology produces Fukishima and Hiroshima and Three Mile Island. That it also produces a gamma knife for the supposed well-being of the wealthy is no counter argument. In fact, the brain cancer that the gamma knife seeks to destroy may well be from 1960s nuclear fallout.
    Humans are—by definition "Humus"— not all seeing.
    At our worst, our "humble" "human" frailty is arrogance and megalomania.
    Monsanto's Round-Up Ready manipulations easily outstrip Icarus for both.

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  6. Mark McKinzie says:

    You wrote that “Even so, a life-saving medical marvel like vaccines doesn’t need to be 100% effective to be useful, because every life that is saved is important.”. but in the case of vaccines this misses the mark. For infectious diseases to become epidemic, you need the rate at which new infections occur to outpace the rate at which people recover from the illness. For that to happen, we don’t need 100% effective vaccines, we just need a high enough percentage of the population immune so that we slow down the rate of spread to be less than the recovery rate.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Your facts are certainly correct, but I don’t think that they invalidate my statement. You can (and in many cases do) have a vaccination rate that is high enough to prevent some deaths, but not high enough to prevent all deaths, which is what I was referring to.

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  7. Debra says:

    That’s an interesting point of view. The thing is though that golden rice doesn’t solve any problem at all (it would require eating pounds and pounds of rice to receive any vit a benefit.) Meanwhile, peasant farmers would no longer be able to collect seed and would have to purchase herbicides. Plus, the growing conditions in those countries are not the same as what is needed for golden rice anyway. For peasants it is a loss across the board. The only ones who win are the corporations selling the seed and their research agencies.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I’m afraid that all of your statements are incorrect.

      First, as far as the amount of golden rice you need to consume, just a cup a day would provide half of an adult’s vitamin A needs, and the rice is intended for countries where rice is a staple part of their diet.
      http://irri.org/golden-rice/faqs/how-much-golden-rice-would-you-need-to-eat-to-prevent-vitamin-a-deficiency
      http://www.goldenrice.org/Content3-Why/why3_FAQ.php#How_much_needed

      Similarly, farmers will be able to save and replant seeds, and with regards to your final comment, this is entirely a non-profit endeavour. So the benefits are all going to the farmers, not companies.
      http://www.goldenrice.org/Content3-Why/why3_FAQ.php#Commercial_interest

      Why do you think that golden rice would need more herbicides than regular rice?

      As far as growing conditions, scientists are crossing the rice with local strains. So the rice is perfectly suited for those environments.
      http://www.goldenrice.org/Content3-Why/why3_FAQ.php#Delivery

      I encourage you to actually fact check rather than blindly accepting anti-GMO propaganda.

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      • Debra says:

        You offered some ideas I need to learn more about. Syngenta’s presence in this debate made me think there is either seed profit or herbicide selling involved. I will look more closely into that. They are on the stock market. They are required to make a profit.

        Rice trials start out for free but there are no assurances that will be the case in the future and may be designed to make farmers dependent. We’ve seen this strategy in the past so it is something to be concerned about. So far test trials for yield have not been promising. And I do worry about cross contamination with local rice. Golden rice did escape trial tests in Louisiana. Putting a rice in the area where rice was first domesticated sounds unwise. The more natural diversity there is in the wild the bigger the natural genetic pool. Introducing a transgenic variety may wipe out wild strains we don’t even know about. We do know there are already wild strains that evolved with vitamin A We haven’t catalogued everything yet.

        Consuming even a cup a day of this rice would not address the problem because Vitamin A deficiency is a symptom of poverty and a poor diet in general. The human body needs normally coexisting micro-nutirents and fat to process beta carotene.

        There are many areas of the world that have found low tech sustainable solutions and have already made progress using multiple approaches. For some countries it means adding supplements to easily available foods, where the problem is a crisis it means emergency capsules but for many it means access to urban gardens which improves the status of women, provides the family with a diverse diet of vegetables and may even provide a small profit. At just one of the research institutions alone they have spent more than 74 million dollars on research. 74 million dollars can buy a lot of gardens in the global south and that is a resource offering multiple benefits that can be used for generations.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          “Rice trials start out for free but there are no assurances that will be the case in the future and may be designed to make farmers dependent. We’ve seen this strategy in the past so it is something to be concerned about.”
          A. can you give examples?
          B. This is a slippery slope fallacy

          Where are your sources that field trials aren’t going well? Also, although tangential, field trials are proving difficult largely because anti-GMO activists keep sabotaging them.

          As far as crossing to wild strains, I have not been able to find any sources for this occurring in Louisiana; however, there is a case of a different type of GMO rice (not golden rice) making a brief “escape” in Arkansas.
          http://www.arkansasricegrowers.com/news/recent-rice-supply-contamination-case-verdict

          Nevertheless, let’s talk about “contamination” for a minute because there are several common misconceptions that need to be cleared up. First, “contamination” among crops and among crops and wild strains has been happening since the dawn of agriculture. It is not something that is new to GMOs, and there is no reason to be any more worried about it with GMOs than with normal crops. Remember, essentially none of the food that we eat is truly natural. Take corn, for example. The plant that we think of as corn is extremely different from its wild ancestors. It has been genetically modified by years of careful breeding, yet no one worries about it “contaminating” wild strains. Similarly, you often have two different domestic strains grown close to each other, and no one is concerned about them “contaminating” one another. So why should GMOs get special treatment? They are just a logical extension of the same thing that we have been doing for thousands of years. I explained why GMOs aren’t really any different from normal crops in more detail in the posts below.
          https://thelogicofscience.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/gmos-are-unnatural-but-so-is-everything-else-that-you-eat/
          https://thelogicofscience.com/2015/11/16/the-real-frankenfoods/

          Finally, realize that “contamination” of a wild strain will only spread if the trait is beneficial in the wild (otherwise it will usually be removed by genetic drift). Producing vitamin A would have no benefit for wild crops, thus the trait would probably not spread. Similarly, (with regards to many other GMOs) being herbicide resistant is only beneficial if you are being sprayed with herbicides. So for wild plants, that trait is useless and genetic drift will most likely remove it.

          Where is your evidence that simply increasing vitamin A levels would not greatly improve the situation? Yes, it won’t solve all of the problems, but it will help greatly, and in some cases may reduce mortality rates by a full 23% (which is huge).
          http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/

          Finally, you seem to have missed the entire point of golden rice. Supplements, for example, are not a sustainable solution because they constantly have to be supplied. Similarly, gardens are only effective when people have the time and resources to tend them, which is usually not the case in subsistence farming. This is especially true given the volume that would be needed to provide enough vitamin A. In contrast, entire countries could grow golden rice indefinitely using the exact same techniques and amount of work that they are already using. Further, because rice is already a staple of their diet, they would be able to get sufficient levels of vitamin A from it.

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