In defence of counterfactuals

July 20, 2008

Counterfactual history is a branch of historiography which deals with what if questions. What would have happened if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War? What if the Persians had defeated the Athenian rowers at Salamis in 480 B.C? Or the Spanish Armada had been successful. Or the French Revolution had failed. It is fair to say that it is not an activity which enjoys universal support among historians – EH Carr’s “an idle parlour game” springs to mind. EP Thomson was even less charitable describing it as ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff’, which translated comes out as unhistorical crap.”

            I though am going to defend these counterfactuals. First I think they are entertaining and can help bring history to life. There are some fine examples in fiction and in movies. Authors such as Philip Roth, (The Plot against America) Robert Harris (Fatherland) and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle) have all used this device And who can forget such films as What a Wonderful Life, Peggy Sue got Married and Back to the Future?

In fact counterfactuals are part of how we humans think about the world. We have the third conditional to describe these phenomena. If I had worked a bit harder, I would have passed the exam. If only I hadn’t got that girl pregnant. I wish I hadn’t put all my money on that horse. In his poem Maud Muller John Greenleaf Whittier the poet wrote:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

This reflection about the past can sometimes be a useful process. I know they say there’s no use crying over spilt milk but if you can prevent the milk from spilling in the first place, that must be a good thing. Life is not preordained and small events can occasionally have massive consequences.

            The same can be said of history. If we look at the world around us many things appear to be chaotic, unsure. From where we stand it’s hard to see how things will turn out in the future. But then magically when a certain period of time has elapsed all these people, places and events blend into a pattern that we know as history. With the advantage pf hindsight everything appears to be inevitable but as the great British historian AJP Taylor stated: Nothing is inevitable until it happens.

            Looking at counterfactuals is important because it can help you focus on what was really significant in a historical situation.  I am not a historical determinist and I feel chance can play a big part in history. I see parallels with chaos theory, where there are so many factors in play that it becomes impossible to predict the outcome. History comprises the decisions of hundreds, thousands, millions of people, or maybe just one person. It is interesting to think of the role that individuals play in history and how they interact with social and other forces. If Adolf Hitler had been killed in a car accident in 1930 (apparently he nearly was) I find it hard to believe it would not have had a massive impact on history. What about Gorbachev? Would the USSR have collapsed without him? Obviously it had severe structural problems but maybe another leader would have reacted in a different way.

The question of Josef Stalin is another fascinating one to consider when analysing the role of individuals and systemic factors. Some on the left see Stalin as aberration and think the outcome may have been different had Lenin lived longer and a different successor emerged. In this case I see his rise as something systemic. I might not go quite as far as Solzhenitsyn who described Stalin as “the blind executioner of Lenin’s political will” but I do see him as a product of the system. Maybe someone a little better could have emerged but the fact that somebody like Stalin did triumph, should not be considered surprising. Interestingly, here the law of unintended consequences comes into play here and Stalin played a fundamental role in saving Western capitalism when it was challenged by Adolf Hitler. The complexity of history was well captured in a remark by a Chinese politician.  When asked about the impact of the French Revolution Zhou Enlai ,the first premier of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, supposedly replied,: “It’s too early to tell”.

I feel therefore when analysing history it is useful to look at alternative scenarios provided that they have some credibility. Obviously it would not be sensible to ask what would have happened if Attila the Hun had possessed battlefield nuclear weapons. Plausible counterfactuals, on the other hand, can help us understand better what actually happened. The late Steven Jay Gould, the palaeontologist believed that we were products of contingent history. If we were to rewind the tape of life to the early history of multicellular forms and you would get a whole different set of solutions. It is highly unlikely that humans would appear in this new version. Maybe human history is similar.



Some quotes about history

July 20, 2008

History is the essence of innumerable biographies. Thomas Carlyle


Study the past, if you would divine the future. Confucius


No effective historian of the future can be innocent of statistics, and indeed he or she should probably be a literate amateur economist, psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and geographer. Bernard Bailyn


The “facts” of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them, and into every fact he creates some part of his individual experience must enter. Carl Becker


A nation must be willing to look dispassionately at its own history. Willy Brandt


All history is the history of thought. Benedetto Croce


Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. C. L. R. James


History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. Henry Ford


History: gossip well told. Elbert Hubbard


Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.AJP. Taylor


I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Abraham Lincoln


It is impossible to write ancient history because we do not have enough sources, and impossible to write modern history because we have far too many. Charles Pierre Péguy


Who controls the past controls…the future: who controls the present controls the past. George Orwell

Movie monolgues #2

July 20, 2008

A Civil Action.

Jan Schlichtmann played by John Travolta.


It’s like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, severely maimed plaintiff. However, if it’s a long agonizing death as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20’s is generally worth less than one who is middle-aged, a dead woman less than a dead man, a single adult less than one who is married, black less than white, poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a while male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all…


The odds of a plaintiff’s lawyer winning in civil court are two to one against. Think about that for a second. Your odds of surviving a game of Russian roulette are better than winning a case at trial. Twelve times better. So why does anyone do it? They don’t. They settle. Out of the 780,000 cases filed each year, only 12,000, or one and a half percent, ever reach a verdict. The whole idea of lawsuits is to settle, to compel the other side to settle. And you do that by spending more money than you should, which forces them to spend more money than they should, and whoever comes to their senses first, loses. Trials are a corruption of the entire process, and only fools with something to prove, end up ensnared in them. And when I say prove, I don’t mean about the case. I mean about themselves…

My media week 20/07/08

July 20, 2008

The excellent Matthew Parris has an excellent article about the amount of hot air currently coming from Gordon Brown’s Labour government. The piece is called Sound and press releases, signifying nothing. Click here.


ABC  has a podcast  debating Free trade versus fair trade. Click here.


BBC Radio 4’s Analysis has a podcast about The World’s Shifting Balance. It is presented by  Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times. It deals with the dramatic changes currently affecting the world economy. The programme has a transcript and will be available until on Thursday, 24th July 2008.  Click here.


Every Saturday Ben Goldacre does an excellent column debunking bad science. His typical targets are dodgy newspaper statistics, celebrities promoting vitamin pills and alternative medicine in general. This week’s article looks at how newspapers divide  all the inanimate objects in the world into the ones that either cause or cure cancer and how this produces ridiculous stories. Click here.

Grameen Bank and the social business model

July 13, 2008

On December 10, 2006 Mosammat Taslima Begum, who had borrowed 16 euros from a bank in 1992 to buy a goat, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony held at Oslo City Hall. Begum had taken the loan from a very special kind of bank called Grameen Bank. This loan proved to be a godsend for her, as she became a successful entrepreneur and one of Grameen Bank’s elected board members. It was in this capacity, on behalf of the bank’s investors and borrowers that Begum went to the Norwegian capital to pick up the prize. I mention all this because a few days ago I attended a conference in Madrid given by Professor Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor and the founder of Grameen Bank, the only business corporation to have ever won a Nobel Prize.

First let me give you a few facts about this bank. The word “Grameen”, derived from the word “gram” or “village”, literally means “of the village”. Although its origins go back to 1976 it actually became an independent bank in 1983. It gives loans to the rural poor, especially women who make up around 97% of its clients. These are very small loans known as microcredits.

How do they work? Each borrower must belong to a five-member group. These groups do not provide any guarantee for a loan to one of their members; repayment responsibility solely rests on the individual borrower. However if one member of a group defaults, that group will never receive a loan from Grameen. So it’s a kind of social pressure exerted by the group members. Grameen enjoys very high payback rates—over 98 percent. I’m sure a lot of banks in the advanced world may feel envious.

The Grameen Bank has branched out into over two dozen enterprises represented by the Grameen Family of Enterprises. These organizations include: Grameen Trust, Grameen Fund, Grameen Communications, Grameen Energy, Grameen Telecom…

Yunus is a believer in what are called social businesses. These businesses begin with a goal such as better nutrition or access to education. They obtain start-up capital and attract investors. Where they differ from a rational business is that they do not pay dividends to their investors; all the profits are reinvested. The business is judged not by earnings per share or some other traditional metric but by their efficiency in achieving their social objective. This, for Yunus is a much more effective than traditional charity and provide what Yunus calls “the missing piece of the capitalist system.” 

            But not everything is sweetness and light. Grameen has drawn fire from both the left and right. For Gina Neff of the Left Business Observer the microcredit movement represents a privatisation of public safety-net programs. They say the interest rates are abusive. The neo-liberals call it macrowelfare and think for-profit corporations are a better bet. What do I think? I certainly prefer this kind of solution to the top-down ones favoured by the left. The idea seems a fantastic one to me. Perhaps Grameen is a bit opaque in its accounting. Some claim that their default figures do not reflect reality. I have also found it difficult to interpret the overall impact Grameen has on the Bangladeshi economy. I don’t think Mr. Yunus should be given a free ride but I think he should be applauded for such an exciting innovation. Time will tell how much can be achieved with microcredits and I’m sure they are not a panacea for all the developing world’s problems but I feel they should be given a chance to show that they can produce a beneficial change for the poor around the world.



My media week 13/07/08.

July 13, 2008

Linguist Geoff Nunberg gives a balanced perspective about all those dire predictions of how new technologies will destroy our language. (STREAMING) Click here. It comes with the text.

This is not a typical article you’d expect to see in the FT – Bank leaders are a disgrace to capitalism. (ARTICLE) Click here.

The Telegraph has a piece about The University of the Third Age – a place  where retired people can continue learning. They have no lectures or exams but they do have an excellent array of subjects from from ancient Egypt to bellydancing. (ARTICLE) Click here.

Thinking Allowed is a radio discussion programme on BBC Radio 4, which focuses on the the latest social sciences research and is hosted by Laurie Taylor a Professor of Sociology at the University of York. Topics in the past have included paganism, gay chav erotic, the hairless body and even sandwiches. Some people have claimed he was the inspiration for Malcolm Bradbury’s wonderful comic creation, left-wing university lecturer Howard Kirk. Nowadays Taylor has moderated somewhat and has a nice self-deprecating sense of humour.This week’s programme is about the origins of glamour as Taylor  talks to Stephen Gundle, Professor of Film and Television Studies at Warwick University the author of a new book, Glamour a History and also discusses the history of British Advertising with Winston Fletcher, former Chairman of the Advertising Association. (PODCAST AND STREAMING) Click here.

The Daily Mash has a satirical piece about a new career path for Cristiano Ronaldo. (ARTICLE)  Click here.


My favourite links #14

July 13, 2008




This week I’m looking at, a website where you can find short video explaining life. The list is very extensive and includes:


Manners And Body Language Across Cultures

Serving In Tennis

Strategies For Rock, Paper Scissors

Wedding Etiquette

How To Butch-Up Your Male Dog