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Two recent questions asked us to explore why an event didn't happen.

Technically speculation on alternative histories is out of scope, but I don't think these two questions should be out of scope. While I personally don't find them very interesting, I believe they fit solidly within the realm of historical scholarship. Although it is phrased as an exploration of something that didn't happen but could have (counterfactual), the real emphasis is on identifying the factors that inhibited or facilitated the events in question and identifying the differences between two similar situations, and I think that is legitimate history. Ultimately, I think that I'll learn something from a satisfactory answer to the question. (I certainly learned something when I tried to answer the question and found out my assumptions were.... not as truthy as I thought they were.)

If others don't feel the need to draw a distinction between these and counterfactuals, then we can ignore the problem.

But there is also the possibility that these are examples of an anti-pattern - a way of forming a question where the presentation of the question subverts the substance of the question.

(I'm going to dissect Mr. Campbell's questions as an example; no disrespect is intended to Mr. Campbell, but I think clarity requires some specifics).

  • In my opinion, these questions would be improved by clarifying the unstated assumption(s). Both questions are really asking why chattel slavery succeeded in British colonies, but not in these other situations. There is an implicit assumption that the situations are similar.

  • Would we be better off to advise people to phrase it in the positive? "Why did slavery succeed Here but not Here?

  • FWIW I don't see that question as being counterfactual in the sense of alt history - it seems like a perfectly valid historical question. "Why didn't something happen" is not that uncommon of a starting point in academical historical research. I see no reason to downvote (unless the question happened to be bad for some other reason, e.g. why weren't Australian Aboriginies enslaved when slavery were abolished by Britain - trivial) – Semaphore May 23 '15 at 3:17
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Negative counterfactuals are like "the dog that didn't bark in the night." Maybe a better way of casting such questions is "What historical factors prevented/discouraged X from happening.There is usually a reason for them. (In the case of the dog, it was because the crime was an "inside job" by one of the servants known to the dog.)

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In most cases, I think these types of questions should be considered off-topic as hypothetical or otherwise a matter of opinion. These questions seem to fall into one of two categories:

(1) Why didn't X happen?

(2) Why didn't person X think Y?

Both categories have two main variants:

(A) There were several possible alternatives (Napolean could have attacked X, Y or Z, he attacked X, why did he not attack Y)

(B) Purely hypothetical scenarios (Why didn't Napolean attack China?)

I think most would agree that type B is definitely off topic. Many would consider type A to possibly be on topic. The thinking here is that if the hypothetical was a rational alternative, then we can reason about it.

My feeling is that either way it is engaging in speculation. Even if you can start listing reasons why person X did not choose alternative Y, you are still just guessing at their motivations and psychology. It's theorizing about hypotheticals, not providing factual historical answers.

  • Would it matter if the question was something like "what are the stated reasons why Napolean didn't attack Y", or do you feel, perhaps, that then it would be trivial? – CGCampbell Oct 15 '15 at 17:42
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    @CGCampbell The problem with a question like "Did Napolean ever explain the reason he did not attack China?" is that it is essentially proving a negative. To answer you theoretically would have to go through every letter and state paper and speech ever given by Napolean and make sure there are no sentences concerning attacks on China. It's not a reasonable line of inquiry. – Tyler Durden Oct 15 '15 at 17:46

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