Counterfactuals: Typical Objections and Some Rejoinders

Conventionally, counterfactual analysis has not been endorsed by historians and social scientists. This post addresses some typical objections.

The first objection is that, given the multiplicity of components present in any web—a nearly infinite number of alternatives exist—how does one choose the relevant subset? For example, in Taylor (2005, Chapter 4, section A), why did I stop at multi-objective techniques? Why not analyze farmers’ decision making in terms of, say, neural nets or genetic algorithms? My answer is that, when analysts use counterfactuals to expose resources and to support the corresponding causal claims, they must make the counterfactuals practically plausible. The set of counterfactuals should not include just any conceivable idea. To persuade readers that a counterfactual was practically plausible to the agents, the counterfactual should not be too dissimilar from what actually occurred. Or, more precisely, the counterfactual should, given the cross-linkage of resources, build on most of the same resources as the actual situation.

Now, evaluations of whether resources linked into the altered (counterfactual) context are still the same cannot be neutral, but must be made by, or with reference to, two groups: some agents to whom the alternatives are also practically relevant, and some audience that has to imagine how the agents were acting in the given situation. Using such an evaluation a finite subset of alternatives can, in principle, be delimited in a non-arbitrary way. Hawthorn (1991) provides three detailed cases to illustrate his valuable discussion of the use of counterfactuals in historical explanation.
The need to show practical plausibility of alternatives can lead to a second objection: To do this well one should have a strong picture of what the relevant causes are, yet the very reason for counterfactual analysis is to assess the causal significance of resources. This apparent circularity dissolves, however, if we think of explanation as an iterative process, beginning with causal ideas (see post on Causes) borrowed from situations deemed similar. These ideas are then successively refined and reformulated to address the situation at hand. It is true that iterative methods cannot in general guarantee that one successively approaches a correct account, but such certainty need not be a decisive criterion for good interpretation.

Lynch (1989), following Elster (1978), advocates a different way of resolving the circularity problem, namely, building a more explicit theoretical basis for counterfactuals from other sources, such as the sociology of scientific knowledge. Besides Hawthorn (1991), who eschews generalizing theory, the most developed use of counterfactual scenarios has been in economic history, in which explicit econometric models have been used to examine issues such as the impact of railroads on the U.S. economy in the nineteenth century (Fogel and Engerman 1969). This work takes seriously the idea of going back in time until there is a point at which counterfactuals to railways, e.g., greater development of canals, can be smoothly inserted into the model of the developing U.S. economy (see below). Notwithstanding this virtue, econometric counterfactual analysis does not provide satisfactory exemplars of theory-based counterfactuals. Because econometric scenarios are formulated as sets of regression equations, their “causality” is based on statistical association and is difficult to express in terms of actions of agents. On neither count does this match the view of causality here (see post on Causes).

The specific example of the Kerang Farm Model in Taylor (2005, Chapter 4, section A) presents an easy case for convincing readers that the counterfactuals were practically plausible and relevant. That is because the modeler actually attempted to pursue or envisage the alternatives that I have mentioned earlier. Neural nets and genetic algorithms, on the other hand, were in their very early days of development, in disciplines and places far removed from the economics of the Institute. However, we should not make too much of the special insight the modeler provided. Counterfactual analysis must be possible regradless of whether the agents have attempted to implement alternatives. Because of this, the Kerang study and the modeler’s engagement should not be taken as the exemplar of how to expose and identify alternatives. Observations that were more sociologically distanced or systematic than the modeler provided would help make the analysis something others could borrow from. To make systematic choices among the multiplicity of counterfactuals, it helps to be prepared to expose and develop one’s own agenda for engagement. In formulating the set of eight contrasts in Taylor (2005, Chapter 4, section B), my interest in participatory rather than technocratic approaches to socio-environmental studies came into play. This interest made it clear why I discounted Cockrum’s alternative to Picardi’s system dynamics modeling, and instead examined alternatives in which the pastoralists’ situation became less system-like.

Finally, some observations can be made on why interpreters of science might want to depart from the naturalistic approach of staying close to the scientist’s vantage point. As mentioned earlier, counterfactual analyses are strongly shaped by the positioning of the sociological explainers and their audience. A counterfactual that the audience at hand does not consider practically plausible for the relevant agents in its time can sometimes be suitably modified. By moving back in time, to another place, or among different people, we can render it into something practically plausible for the new agents. (But we may need to move our audience also, or move in front of a different audience, in order to do so.) To help explain the Kerang study, we could ask whether a different modeler, say, one more senior and more experienced in multi-objective techniques, could have made a different model “right for the job.” This would mean going back to the time when the project was formulated, or even further, to the time when other scientists were devising the courses on modeling that went into the training of this different modeler. A shift in the counterfactuals and their point of insertion—the time, place, focal agents, and audience—would also be required if we want to test a hypothesis, say, that policies formed through studies conducted in-house by a government agency are more likely to be taken up than policies formed through research contracted out to university researchers. Clearly, it is a challenging task to define and delimit counterfactuals when agents are building on webs of heterogeneous resources. This task is a facet of the broader challenge of analyzing the composition, shape, and structure of those webs.

Excerpted from the Notes section of Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. U. Chicago Press.

Elster, J. (1978). Logic and Society: Contradiction and Possible Worlds. New York: Wiley.
Fogel, R. W. and S. L. Engerman (1969). “A model for the explanation of industrial expansion during the nineteenth century: With an application to the American iron industry.” Journal of Political Economy 77: 306-328.
Hawthorn, G. (1991). Plausible Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lynch, W. T. (1989). “Arguments for a non-Whiggish hindsight: Counterfactuals and the sociology of knowledge.” Social Epistemology 3(4): 361-365.


One thought on “Counterfactuals: Typical Objections and Some Rejoinders

  1. Yaakov Garb

    For an ambitious counterfactual excercise, see Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (2000, Basic Books) as describe/reviewed below:

    Speculative history at its best, in which a talented team of historians, led by Niall Ferguson, explore what might have happened if nine momentous events had turned out differently.

    What if there had been no American War of Independence? What if Hitler had invaded Britain? What if Kennedy had lived? What if Russia had won the Cold War? Niall Ferguson, author of the highly acclaimed The Pity of War, leads the charge in this historically rigorous series of separate voyages into “imaginary time” and provides far-reaching answers to these intriguing questions.

    Ferguson’s brilliant 90-page introduction doubles as a manifesto on the methodology of counter-factual history. His equally masterful afterword traces the likely historical ripples that would have proceeded from the maintenance of Stuart rule in England. This breathtaking narrative gives us a convincing, detailed “alternative history” of the West-from the accession of “James III” in 1701, to a Nazi-occupied England, to a U.S. Prime Minister Kennedy who lives to complete his term.


    Introduction – Virtual History: Towards a ‘chaotic’ theory of the past – Niall Ferguson

    1 England Without Cromwell: What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War? – John Adamson

    2 British America: What if there had been no American Revolution? – J. C. D. Clark

    3 British Ireland: What if Home Rule had been enacted in 1912? – Alvin Jackson

    4 The Kaiser’s European Union: What if Britain had ‘stood aside’ in August 1914? – Niall Ferguson

    5 Hitler’s England: What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940? – Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson

    6 Nazi Europe: What if Nazi Germany had defeated the Soviet Union? – Michael Burleigh

    7 Stalin’s War Or Peace: What if the Cold War had been avoided? – Jonathan Haslam

    8 Camelot Continued: What if John F. Kennedy had lived? – Diane Kunz

    9 1989 Without Gorbachev: What if Communism had not collapsed? – Mark Almond

    Afterword: A Virtual History, 1646–1996 – Niall Ferguson


    Index Review

    This meaty, scholarly collection of essays by gifted historian Niall Ferguson tackles the controversial topic of counterfactual questions: What if Hitler had invaded Britain in WWII? What if JFK had survived his assassination? What if there had been no Gorbachev to usher in the collapse of Communism? What if there had been no American Revolution? Ferguson points out that while questions such as these are a vital part of how we learn as individuals (“What if I had observed the speed limit, or refused that last drink?”), there remains a great deal of resistance—even hostility—to such musings among professional historians. “In the dismissive phrase of E.H. Carr, ‘counterfactual’ history is a mere ‘parlour game,’ a ‘red herring.'” E.P. Thompson is less charitable, calling counterfactual histories “‘Geschichtswissenschlopff’, unhistorical shit.”

    But Ferguson and his distinguished collaborators (many of whom are also Oxford fellows) lodge some convincing counterfactuals of their own to counter this arguably blinkered notion, this “idea that events are in some way preprogrammed, so that what was, had to be.” In addition to the what-ifs above, Ferguson and his comrades tackle eight questions in all, including “What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?”, “What if Home Rule had been enacted [in Ireland] in 1912?”, and “What if Britain had ‘stood aside’ in August 1914?” Virtual History makes for a stimulating and intellectually rigorous trip, with Ferguson’s own delightful afterword as the collection’s crowning jewel, a brilliant—and often bitingly clever—timeline tying together all the threads from 1646 to 1996.


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