Counterfactuals have long been used to answer questions of historical causality. They have especially been employed to weigh the importance of chance, accident, and contingency (as opposed to structural or general causes) in historical events.
A good example of the advantages and disadvantages of counterfactuals appeared in Sunday’s New York Times article about the recent capsizing of the South Korean ferry near Jindo Island.
The Times reported that questions had emerged about “the qualifications of the third mate, Park Han-gyeol…after investigators revealed that the ship’s captain, Lee Jun-seok, 69, was in his quarters on a break, leaving Ms. Park in charge of the bridge, giving instructions to a helmsman at the wheel, when the ferry was negotiating the waterway 11 miles from Jindo Island.”
“For ages, the 3.7-mile-long, 2.8-mile-wide Maenggol Waterway has provided a shortcut for ships that try to save fuel or time navigating waters dotted with islets off the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula. But the channel also has a reputation for having one of the most rapid and unpredictable currents around the peninsula.”
“It was her first time commanding the steering of the ship through the Maenggol Waterway,” said Yang Joong-jin, a senior prosecutor who is part of the government’s investigation. “There is nothing legally wrong with that. But it does give us important data on how well qualified she was.”
“Ms. Park ended up in command of the ship by chance.”
“The three regular mates on the 6,825-ton car ferry, the Sewol, worked on a fixed rotation of four-hour shifts, with Ms. Park on duty at the bridge from 8 a.m. to noon. The ship had been scheduled to leave Incheon at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday with 476 people on board, including 325 second-year high school students headed for a field trip on Jeju. Ms. Park had been working aboard the ferry on the Incheon-Jeju route for six months.”
“But the ship’s departure was delayed by two and a half hours because of heavy fog. Had it left on time, the ship would have passed the spot where it foundered and sank one and a half hours before Ms. Park’s shift was to have started.”
“Ms. Park was unavailable for comment. She was arrested Saturday, along with the captain and the helmsman. They face criminal charges of abandoning their ship and passengers during a crisis, accidental homicide, or both.”
The question emerges: would the ship have capsized had there been no fog and departed on time? With a more experienced captain at the helm, who was used to navigating difficult currents?
This factor of chance needs to be weighed against other factors that another Times article cited in the accident, “including pilot error; an unexpected current; failure in the ship’s ballast; loose or unbalanced cargo; a recent addition of more cabins on the upper deck of the 20-year-old ferry that may have impaired its ability to recover balance; and loosely abided safety regulations.”
Would any of these factors have caused the accident if a different captain had been at the helm? Probably not. This likelihood underscores the value of counterfactual reasoning in assessing causality.
This is not to say, however, that the dense fog caused the accident, as it was merely the beginning of a larger causal chain.
(The same can be said, for the record, about historian David McCullough’s counterfactual essay some years ago, “What the Fog Wrought,” which argued that poor weather conditions (thick fog) enabled George Washington’s troops to escape an otherwise sure defeat at the hands of the British in the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 and enabled the American Revolution to continue.
The key point is to recall E. H. Carr’s argument about the relationship between chance and generalizable causes. In What is History?, Carr wrote about a cigarette smoker who gets hit by a car while walking to buy cigarettes and concluded that the man’s smoking habit did not cause his death (even if it was involved), as smoking is not a generalizable cause of hit and run accidents. This seems to be a sensible point, even if it remains persuasive that had he not been a smoker, he would not have been in a position to get killed. By the same token, if the fog off the coast of South Korea had not been so thick, the ferry would have departed on time with its scheduled captain and its other liabilities might not have become activated as they were.