A Counterfactual That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Zeynep Tufekci on Missed Opportunities and COVID-19

I was struck by something missing from Zeynep Tufekci’s otherwise excellent essay, “How Millions of Lives Might Have Been Saved From Covid-19,” in today’s New York Times opinion section – the word “counterfactual.”  

Tufekci’s essay is massive – over three thousand words – many of them defined by conditional statements of the “what if?” variety.  

Consider the essay’s opening lines: 

“As the pandemic enters its third year, we must consider those moments when...nations made choices that affected thousands, millions, of lives. 

What if China had been open and honest in December 2019? What if the world had reacted as quickly and aggressively in January 2020 as Taiwan did? What if the United States had put appropriate protective measures in place in February 2020, as South Korea did?  

To examine these questions is to uncover a brutal truth: Much suffering was avoidable, again and again, if different choices that were available and plausible had been made at crucial turning points. By looking at them, and understanding what went wrong, we can hope to avoid similar mistakes in the future.”  

The remainder of the essay contrasts the many things that actually “happened” with those many things that “could have happened.”  

For instance:  

"What happened in the first weeks: China covered up the outbreak....What could have happened: China tells the world the truth and the pandemic is avoided."


"What happened after China covered up: The world failed to heed warnings and take action....What could have happened: The world sees through China’s deception and takes action."

Tufekci, in short, invites her readers to engage in something this blog has long been promoting – counterfactual reasoning. 

But for some reason, she never uses the word "counterfactual" in her essay.  

Why not?  

It's not as if the word is so newfangled.

The term counterfactual was first coined in 1947 by Nelson Goodman, but only came into limited usage in the 1960s and 70’s, in the context of the “New Economic History” (sometimes called cliometrics).  The term gained more universal cachet around the turn of the millennium and has been with us ever since as a signifier for historical inquiry that engages in speculative hypotheticals.  

So why does Tufekci avoid the term?  

I can think of several possibilities:   

1) she believes that counterfactuals are so commonplace and accepted in today’s world that there is no need to direct attention to them with an explicit reference. 

2) she believes they remain stigmatized as a subjective, unverifiable, and un-empirical mode of reasoning and wants to avoid being accused of engaging in it. 

3) she is unaware of the existence (and long history) of counterfactuals and simply fails to mention the word out of ignorance.  

I have no way of knowing what the answer is.  But I would love to find out.    

I suppose the reason I’m so intrigued by Tufekci’s omission is that our present-day world is becoming increasingly self-reflexive about how we use counterfactuals.   For her to write a 3000-word essay ENTIRELY DEVOTED TO COUNTERFACTUAL REFLECTION without calling attention to that very fact seems odd.  

This blog post seeks to provide a helpful editorial service to Tufekci by speaking the word – COUNTERFACTUAL – that, for whatever reason dares not be spoken about in her essay.