In early March we started to prop open the doors in our office that have a keypad because they are probably the most commonly touched surfaces in our office. We hoped that reducing the touching of common surfaces would reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. (Note that it has more recently been determined that spread by contact isn’t the main way the virus spreads.)
Once we instituted this change a few people commented that it didn’t seem worthwhile to prop doors open given that we couldn’t solve the problem of the other commonly touched surfaces such as elevator call buttons, restroom door handles, and refrigerator door handles. Unless we had a solution for these surfaces, what is the use of reducing keypad usage?
On its surface, this may seem like a good point, but it’s actually an example of a logical fallacy known as the Nirvana Fallacy. Reducing a major common contact point is worthwhile, even though we can’t achieve the idealized situation of eliminating all common contact points.
The Nirvana Fallacy occurs when a realistic solution is compared to an idealized solution and the realistic solution is dismissed because it’s not perfect. According to the site Logically Fallacious, the logical form of this fallacy is as follows:
X is what we have.
Y is the perfect situation.
Therefore, X is not good enough
The key point to learn from this fallacy is that almost nothing is 100% effective. Often it is better to achieve somewhat less than perfection but still make an attempt.
The Nirvana Fallacy is useful to keep in mind as we think about how to take precautions against the spread of COVID 19. An example is mask-wearing. Wearing masks that are not N95 masks doesn’t stop all (or possibly even most) of the aerosol droplets breathed by a person infected with the virus. That leads some people to conclude that it’s not worthwhile for us to wear masks. However, even though homemade and surgical masks are not ideal, they do inhibit some of the spread of the virus by infected people.
So, the Nirvana Fallacy teaches that all or nothing thinking is usually fallacious. Taking precautions or making improvements that are realistically achievable but less than ideal are often still worthwhile.