Counterfactuals and Other Futures Thinking

Closely related to scenarios, but different, are counterfactuals, which literally mean some alternatives that didn’t actually happen, but could have. It’s essentially scenario planning in reverse, applying the scenarios to the past rather than the future. Why would this be interesting for us? For starters, we’re all already instinctively interested in what-if questions, and most of us have probably been replaying scenarios of all kinds in our minds since we were children. The popular 1931 book, If It Had Happened Otherwise, sparked the serious interest in counterfactuals as an actual discipline. It was a set of essays by well-known people of the time speculating how history might have turned out differently had just one thing been changed. Winston Churchill, then in the political wilderness (enduring a lull in his career), contributed a speculative piece on how the world would have been different if General Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg, rather than losing it.

You get the picture. What if a starving artist named Adolf Hitler had actually gotten into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts (where he applied twice, but got rejected)? What if the bullets had missed President Kennedy? What if Mikhail Gorbachev had not come to power in the Soviet Union in the 1980s? What if the Lehman Brothers collapse had been averted by government action? At some point, counterfactuals seem less a method of inquiry and more an amusing parlor game, ...

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