Archive for October 26th, 2008

When was the last time you used a counterfactual statement? (for definition and examples check here.)

Most likely you dropped one within the last 24 hours.  Counterfactual history litters our sports, finance, media/technology, political and intellectual discourse constantly nowadays.

In Sports:

  • “If Michael Phelps didn’t win 8 golds, …”
  • “If LT played during the preason, the Chargers would be….”
  • ….

In finance:

  • “If Greenspan had lowered rates, …”
  • “If the banks were more regulated, then we would have avoided…”
  • ….

In media:

  • “If Microsoft had bought Yahoo!, then…”
  • “If there were no election cylce, SNL would be…”
  • ….

In politics

  • “If McCain picked Romney, the polls would…”
  • “If the economy didn’t tank, Obama would not…”
  • “If we never went into Iraq, …”
  • “If we left Saddam in power, we’d all…”
  • ….

Our own intellectual discourse:

  • “If I hadn’t have quit my job, we would…”
  • “If I were 5 minutes later, everything would be…”
  • “If you would have looked the door, the burglar would have found another way in…”

This is the basis of all punditry.  Why?  That’s a damn good question.  Why is our discourse so focused on counterfactuals? What value to they provide us?  Is it just “exhaust” as we try to evaluate consequences of real facts (things that did happen!)?  Do they help us organize events so we can better recognize future situations?  Do they actually have logical value beyond discussion? (multiple worlds theory…)

These types of statements are completely unfalsifiable.  They are hypothetical with no way to test them.  The only way would could test these is to be in the exact situations again (or be able to experimentally repeat them).  The problem is – there’s absolutely no way to do this.  We cannot go back, we cannot recreate the exact circumstances.

How often do you use a counterfactual?

My take is that counterfactuals offer very little explanatory value and little behavior modification value.  They are simply fillers as we process what did happen.  (now, can I prove this?)

Hmmm… i’m going to work up an experiment.

Read Full Post »