Word nerd: Counterfactual

By | July 20, 2007

This morning the Slate Political Gabfest discussed Elizabeth Edwards’ claim that her husband John would be a better presidential candidate for women that Hillary Clinton.В  Slate’s chief political correspondent John Dickerson called this statement “counterfactual.”

In this context, “counterfactual” strikes me as a wonderfully diplomatic word. Ms. Edwards’ statement isn’t “wrong” or “a lie” or even “mistaken” – much more emotionally charged descriptors. It simply runs counter to the facts. But in my mind at least, “counterfactual” pushed all of those other possibilities right to the front of my thoughts without Dickerson needing to say them a out loud. Nicely done!

A little Google searching (as little as possible) turns up a number of different uses for the term “counterfactual”. Counterfactual thinking is the sort of “what if?” speculation that we all engage in when we look back on the events of our lives. (”I should have gone away to college instead of staying at home.”) A counterfactual conditional is an if-then statement indicating what would be the case if the first part of the statement were true. (”If Oswald had not shot Kennedy, then someone else would have.”) Counterfactual history applies this to the study of history. (”What would have happened if Oswald had not shot Kennedy?”)