the Nirvana Fallacy

Sometimes an imperfect solution is better than waiting for a perfect one.

The nirvana fallacy (aka the “perfect solution fallacy”) is when you compare an imperfect option to an idealized perfect option. Basically it’s when you dislike/reject an option just because it isn’t perfect. Rather than weighing the merits of realistic (albeit flawed) options, you pit realistic options up against unrealistic perfect options.

Something is better than nothing

In the world of COVID we see this with wearing masks. When you board a plane or enter a restaurant you have to wear a mask, you can remove your mask to eat or drink, but then you have to put your mask back on. This leads some to think “Well why even bother wearing the mask if we’re just going to take it off?”, but this is fallacious. The perfect solution would be to stay at home or to wear your mask all the time, but this is unrealistic. Even though temporarily removing your mask is flawed, to wear your mask at all is still better than never wearing a mask. The imperfect solution is better than not even attempting a solution just because it isn’t perfect (which, spoiler, the perfect solution neither exists nor will it ever exist).

The nirvana fallacy frequently finds its way into public policy debates. When some policy doesn’t fully solve a problem its political opponents will attack it for its flaws. However, no realistic solution will ever go far enough to satisfy all critics. Good governance is choosing the best possible available solution knowing that all options will be flawed.

When weighing your options don’t reject an option just because it isn’t perfect — all options will be imperfect. By holding out for the perfect option you can do more harm than good. Doing something is frequently better than doing nothing at all.

“Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Mistakes Happen (Sometimes Intentionally)

Nothing is perfect and we should embrace mistakes and imperfections.

Mistaken Mistakes

Persian carpets (aka Iranian carpets) come in a diversity of designs and sizes, but they frequently contain repeating symmetrical patterns. One alleged feature in handmade Persian carpets is a mistake in the design pattern (not in the construction) included intentionally. This “Persian flaw” serves as a reminder that only Allah is perfect. The flaw would be something small only noticed by the keenest of observers. It’s also been said that the Amish have a similar practice, that they include an intentional flaw (a “humility block”) in their quilts as a reminder that only God is perfect … but it isn’t true.

Lancaster curator Wendell Zercher has quoted Amish quilt makers as saying “… no one has to remind us that we’re not perfect.” As for Persian flaws, most accounts of this idea come from Western sources and is probably an example of orientalism. While both of these are nice stories that probably help to sell imperfect rugs & quilts, we have little to no evidence to support them. If anything, to intentionally make just one mistake out of humility would prove the opposite, bragging that you have the ability to make a perfect creation (but choose not to).

Actual “Mistakes”

There are however some cultures that really do include intentional imperfections in their work. Women in the Punjab region between India & Pakistan create Phulkari shawls of intricate designs. In these designs they sometimes include “mistakes” which are momentary changes in the overall design pattern. These changes are included to mark important events during the creation of the shawl (births, weddings, deaths, etc). Sometimes the symmetrical pattern is disrupted as spiritual protection from the evil eye.

On the left is a phulkari shawl with intentional changes to the pattern. To the right is a Navajo weaving featuring a “spirit line”.

Some Navajo also include imperfections in their weavings for spiritual reasons. The ch’ihónít’i (aka the “spirit line” or the “weaver’s path”) is a single line leading out of the middle of a design to the edge of the weaving. The spirit line is thought to give the weaver’s soul a way to exit the weaving so as to not get trapped in the design.

Embrace Imperfections

Of course if you accept that nothing is perfect then you have no need to add imperfections because everything is imperfect. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is the Zen view that everything is imperfect, impermanent, vulnerable. Unlike Western design ideas which frequently strive for idealized perfection, wabi-sabi celebrates the imperfections that make everything (and everyone) unique.

Kintsugi repaired ceramics, using gold & lacquer to feature (rather than hide) the imperfections.

Building off of wabi-sabi, kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with bits of valuable metals & lacquer that, rather than trying to seamlessly hide the repaired cracks, highlights them. Kintsugi honors the history of the object and celebrates its imperfections. Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize the beauty of imperfect vessels.

A crash course on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Ugly Fruits & Vegetables

In the West this embrace of the imperfect has recently manifested itself in ugly fruits & vegetables. Imperfect looking produce has traditionally gone unsold and makes up 40% of total food waste. Producers throw away food because they don’t think retailers will want it (it doesn’t meet “quality standards”) and then retail stores throw away the unsold odd looking food that customers won’t buy. This is all despite the fact that the taste and nutritional content of this “ugly” food may be identical to “normal” looking produce.

The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché began their “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign that celebrated ugly looking produce, gave them their own section in the store, and sold them at a discount. It proved so successful that other stores began their own campaigns as customers began to accept the wabi-wabi nature of produce.

The Intermarché marketing campaign to help reduce food waste was a huge success.