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Archive for August 17th, 2006

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

THE VALUE OF COUNTERFACTUALS

Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye had a short post on the New York Magazine series on what if 9/11 never happened ? Dave was unimpressed with what he read:

“Some of the pieces have minor insights; some are mildly interesting; most not particularly so.

I think a far more interesting question would be: what specific steps or policies could have been taken that might conceivably have precluded the likelihood of the attack occurring at all, ever?”

Dave was being kind. The series is a disappointing and starkly unimaginative waste of time to read. All the moreso that the magazine line-up included several well known historians who ought to be more practiced and fluent at counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactual thinking allows us to rexamine our premises and chains of logic by altering a critical data point. By looking for inconsistencies in the sequence of our counterfactual model compared to the factual record we test ourselves for bias and get a chance to reevaluate the variables in the historical record and our argument for causation. New points or angles appear when looking at the road not taken and the significance of the event itself may be cast in a new light.

Obviously, counterfactual models are interesting in proportion to the extent the event chosen represents a supposed “tipping point”. “What if the Nazis had invaded Great Britain during WWII?” or ” What if if the Greeks had lost the Persian War?” are more useful questions than “What if America won the Vietnam War ?” or ” What if Columbus had not discovered America ?”. The answer to the latter questions is that the history of the world would have proceeded apace without changing all that much – the Americas were due West from the Old World, they would have been discovered sooner rather than later. Somebody else would have invented the printing press if Gutenberg hadn’t. On the other hand, the Turks sacking Vienna in 1683 and spreading Islam to the Rhine ( or Paris) sends the history of the world on a very different course.

“What if ?” is sometimes almost as useful a question as asking ” Why not ?”.


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