Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The PR War Continues: More Bad Press For Counterfactuals

Readers of this blog are well aware that counterfactual history has had a difficult time gaining acceptance and acquiring legitimacy among professional historians. 

By contrast, the general public has been more receptive, with counterfactual novels, films, and television programs appearing with greater frequency.

This may change, however, the more that pundits publish well intentioned, but misleading, articles, such as Steven Goldzweig’s recent post, “When Words Lose their Meaning: Counterfactual Advocacy, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Despotic Populism.”

I’ve posted here before on how counterfactuals do not exactly benefit when they are used by, and come to be associated with, authoritarian minded political leaders, such as President Trump or Vladimir Putin.

Now the claims of academics like Goldzweig (a professor of communications) threaten to reinforce the notion that counterfactuals may lean right.

I agree with the bulk of Goldzweig’s critique of Trump’s public discourse, which he defines as “designed to deny, evade or misdirect its audiences from facts, inferences, or descriptions of events that might provide the kind of transparency we need in a democratic society.”

However, I bristle at his decision to label this discourse “counterfactual advocacy.”

In the field of history, the term counterfactual has long been employed to add academic respectability to the process of speculating about how the past might have been different.

Here the term is also used to lend a kind of social science aura of analytical rigor to Trum’s good-‘ol-fashioned habit of lying through his teeth whenever possible.

The problem is that the phrase “counterfactual advocacy” blurs crucial distinctions and muddies water that is already pretty opaque.

Counterfactual literally means “counter to fact.” And in the present political context, that is a negative designation.  The wanton distortion and negation of facts has too often been used by authoritarian regimes to mislead and confuse the public.

But not all claims that are contrary to fact have ulterior motives. 

As is well known, counterfactual history contemplates alternatives to real history in order to understand it better, not in order to distort it.

The use of counterfactuals is merely one method among many for historians to seek the elusive ideal of “truth.”

We stigmatize the term “counterfactual” at our peril.

But it’s an uphill battle these days.

Consider how stigmatized the term “alternative” is becoming -- what, with “alternative facts,” “alternative reality,” the “alt-right” (alt being a shorthand version for alternative), and so forth all having negative associations, at least among the moderate, center-left wing of the political spectrum.

It’s hard enough battling centuries of bias against counterfactual history without having to contend with the burgeoning backlash against the term “counterfactual” being encouraged by present-day politics.

I humbly suggest finding an alternative term to describe Trump’s preference for alternative facts.


  1. It also doesn't help when well known counterfactual historians, like Niall Ferguson, make bonehead moves like this: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jun/02/niall-ferguson-quits-stanford-free-speech-role-over-leaked-emails

    Seriously, what was he thinking?

  2. Can't we use different terms other than "counter-factual" and "alternative facts" to convey that history is fragile and contingent, not some boringly inevitable "one damn thing after another"? The most important point is to get students identifying critical decisions in history and points of departure asking themselves and debating what if certain events didn't happen? The past could have been a helluva lot better, and a helluva lot worse. On my blog, http://byaslenderthread.wordpress.com, I rarely use the word "counter-factual."