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Murphy’s Law and the Nirvana Fallacy

Posted on July 2, 2015 in Advocacy Stigma

square904I just learned about the Nirvana Fallacy. It’s a logical prestidigitation where you compare a situation or proposal with an unrealistic and/or idealized alternative. A cousin of my wife’s likes to use it when attacking health care. He points to the woefully underfunded VA and declares that because this government-run system is so ineffective, we must resort to unregulated private industry (which was so good at providing health care before. Right.) Wikipedia describes it in more detail:

The nirvana fallacy is a name given to the informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives.[1] It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem. A closely related concept is the perfect solution fallacy.

By creating a false dichotomy that presents one option which is obviously advantageous—while at the same time being completely implausible—a person using the nirvana fallacy can attack any opposing idea because it is imperfect. Under this fallacy, the choice is not between real world solutions; it is, rather, a choice between one realistic achievable possibility and another unrealistic solution that could in some way be “better”.

One of the arguments for Murphy’s Law is that it is better than the present system ~and~ better than the alternative that many of us propose in its stead, namely community clinics. Fans of the law are always pointing to the failure of community clinics to care for the most severely afflicted among us, which would be amusing if it didn’t lead to some pretty authoritarian measures, as if those clinics actually exist or, where they do exist, as if they are properly funded. They also fail to note that even if their proposal makes it through Congress, it will fail in many states because for it to work, there have to be community clinics! Hence it is unrealistic.

Proponents of Murphy’s Law are idealists with unworkable or expensive solutions. They do nothing to fund community clinics and they declare the system a failure. They crave a return to mental hospitals even those these have proved to be ineffective and expensive. They hypocritically call for evidence-based solutions while their own proposal is founded on weak evidence. They ignore what we who live with mental illness want. They wreak the failures in the status quo, so that their proposals seem reasonable by virtue of the destruction they have either caused or allowed to happen.

When community clinics are properly funded, I suspect that the deficiencies of the system will vanish. I doubt community clinics will treat everyone with mental illness, but a great many more people will be served by them than will if we focus only on the stubborn few who will not take medication. Proponents of Murphy’s Law use this tiny number to justify their proposal and attack our better one. We don’t cover everyone, their reasoning goes, so we must adopt their law. But Murphy’s Law does not help a greater number of people with mental illness and subjects many to forced treatment who would go willingly. If you stand for civil rights, then Murphy’s Law is not only ineffective, but incarcerates and stigmatizes the mentally ill by defining them as individuals unable to care for themselves. Of course, if they don’t have treatment, they will manifest symptoms or commit crimes so that they be taken to jails which will give them the medications they need. Those point to the true solutions to the crisis, namely that patients need access to the medications — or the housing — that they need to stabilize their conditions.

So don’t be fooled by their weak argument. If you want better mental health care for the homeless, give them better health care that is affordable and within their reach.

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