On Counterfactuals

The 'what if?' methodology for exploring your possible pasts

1/ This week the wealth manager Barry Ritholtz had a column on the 2008-09 Great Recession or Global Financial Crisis. In it Ritholtz considered the possibility of counterfactuals - alternative pasts and branching causal pathways - about what might have happened in 2008. What if insurer AIG and the major investment banks had been allowed to fail? What would the last 10 years have been like?

2/ In today’s pandemic world counterfactual thinking has become popular as a methodology to understand and respond to the increased volatility that we all currently face. Perhaps the best timed from a career and popular culture perspective is Lawrence Wright’s new pandemic thriller The End of October (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020) which foresaw the Trump Administration’s bungled response to COVID-19.

3/ Counterfactual thinking is a causal research methodology that I’ve skirted around for almost two decades. In 2002, I was in the Strategic Foresight program at Australia’s Swinburne University. I wrote a well received postgraduate essay that combined Niall Ferguson’s work on counterfactuals, Sohail Inayatullah’s work on macrohistory - the deep patterns of history and moral consciousness, and Sid Meier’s Civilisation game series which provided a tool to run counterfactual and macrohistorical simulations.

4/ In 2010 whilst preparing for my PhD studies at Australia’s Monash University, I discovered political scientist Richard Ned Lebow’s counterfactuals work. In 2011, I used Lebow’s ‘minimal rewrite’ technique to consider the adjacent possibilities that could have occurred during Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 and the subsequent George W. Bush Administration’s grand strategy of the Global War on Terror. A much broader range of plausible ‘possibility spaces’ opened up.

5/ In 2014, I got to meet Lebow at the International Studies Association’s annual convention in Toronto, Canada, and to see him present on his counterfactuals approach and contrast it with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s preference for game theory. I sent Lebow a copy of my 2011 journal article. To be able to do this and to engage with an influential scholar is why it is important for postgraduate students to go to academic conferences.

6/ In 2019, Associate Professor Pete Lentini and I did some serious editing of my PhD project. I dropped two chapters and added two new ones. My new chapter 5 considered some of the counterfactual possibilities around Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that occurred on 20th March 1995. The sarin gas attack killed 13 people and injured several thousand others.

7/ In the PhD chapter I distinguished between three different classes of counterfactuals: (i) Lebow’s ‘minimal rewrite’; (ii) apocalyptic versions that led to significant outcomes such as ‘mass casualty’ terrorist attacks; and (iii) ‘maximal rewrite’ versions - such as Asahara’s micro political party winning its 1990 election campaign for the Japanese Diet (parliament) and then Asahara getting assassinated. The chapter was well received by several of my PhD examiners.

8/ Counterfactuals are a powerful thought tool to consider the pathways which led to where you are now. They are easily understandable as the ‘sliding doors moment’ in the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy film Sliding Doors. In the hands of Lebow and other social scientists they can be a powerful tool to identify and open up ‘possibility spaces’ for discussion and exploration. That just may be the kind of thinking that a post-COVID 19 world needs.