Poking Counterfactual Holes in Covering Laws: Cognitive Styles and Political Learning

  • Philip E. TetlockEmail author
  • Richard Ned Lebow
Part of the Pioneers in Arts, Humanities, Science, Engineering, Practice book series (PAHSEP, volume 4)


The philosopher of science Carl Hempel (1965) advanced the controversial thesis that history, properly understood, is a prime candidate for reduction to the laws of social science. Events can only be considered “explained” when they have been assimilated into syllogisms that meet three conditions: (1) causally efficacious covering laws serve as major pre¬mises, (2) carefully abstracted antecedent conditions that prevail at given times and places serve as minor premises, and (3) the conclusions follow as the inexorable or at least likely result of the hypothesized laws operating on the specified antecedents. For better or for worse, and many historians believe the latter (Dray 1989), this covering-law model captures the approach of many social scientists to the explanation of historical trends and patterns (Goldstone 2006; Mokyr 2006). This kind of disciplinary tension is familiar: between idiographic and nomothetic camps, between particularizers who complain that theorists neglect critical complexities in their eagerness to assimilate history into their favorite explanatory templates, and generalizers who complain that particularizers are so immersed in idiosyncratic detail that they miss the big theoretical picture.

This chapter explores a recurring source of disagreement between generalizers and particularizers: the soundness of close-call counterfactual scenarios that imply that, with only minimal rewriting of antecedent conditions, history could have been rerouted down different, sometimes radically different, event paths. Close-call counterfactuals are often focal points of disagreement for two reasons.

First, Fogel (1964) and Fearon (1991), among others, demonstrate that all causal inference from history hypothetical worlds to which scholars have no direct empirical access. This is not to say that evidence is irrelevant. A variety of empirical and logical criteria can be used to differentiate more from less compelling counterfactual claims (see the essays in Tetlock/Belkin 1996). But disputes over the relative soundness of competing counterfactuals are often notoriously resistant to consensual resolution. Examples include the seemingly interminable debates over the avertability or inevitability of both sweeping historical transformations, such as the European rise to global hegemony (Landes 1998; Mokyr n.d.), and highly specific events, such as the onset of World War I or the end-game moves of the Cold War (Lebow 2001).


Subjective Probability Cognitive Style Counterfactual Scenario Historical Question Nuclear Deterrence 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentWharton School, University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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