The Power of Hypotheticals

Hypotheticals are “what if” questions, as in: What if such and such were in fact the case? Some people have difficulty when entertaining hypotheticals. Whether that’s due to bad seed, inbreeding, hypoxia during childbirth, poor nutrition, or whatever, such folks often contend that the hypothetical posed to them is “farfetched” and could never happen (or that the chances are slim to none that it could happen, and Slim has just left town). But such intellects miss the point, which is: What if it did happen, what then?

Engineers and other technology types endlessly go through hypotheticals when they design things. One hypothetical that the designers of the World Trade Center might have given more time to is: What if a commercial jetliner flew into one of the buildings? Disaster preparation and recovery are nothing if not going through hypotheticals, such as “worst case scenarios.” As a computer programmer, I can tell you that a lot of what we do is posing hypotheticals, such as: What if a user presses the wrong key? What if the electrical power goes down? And so on.

What hypotheticals often involve is thinking up extreme situations, and even catastrophic events. Extreme situations and unlikely events have a way of throwing into sharp focus our vulnerabilities, but they also can shed light on what the real nature of things is. If one wants to understand the real nature of federal finance, a hypothetical that might clarify that is: What if investors stopped buying U.S. Treasury securities? That could never happen, you say. Yeah, but what if it did? One hypothetical that scares the dickens out of me is: What if America were hit by an electromagnetic pulse attack, an EMP? (By the way, it isn’t pretty.)

Despite the utility of hypotheticals in clarifying our thought, some refuse to engage in them. In “Recruiting for ISIS” on a recent edition of "60 Minutes", Clarissa Ward interviewed the British Muslim Anjem Choudary:

Clarissa Ward: But they might say that you inspired them with your message.

Anjem Choudary: There was a report out recently which said that I inspired 500 people, in fact, to carry out operations here and abroad. And if that were really the case, don't you think that I'd be arrested? And I'll be sitting in prison.

Clarissa Ward: So if a young man, one of your students, comes to you and says, "Should I go and fight in Syria or Iraq," what would you tell them?

Anjem Choudary: Well, they haven't come to me. And if they come to me I'll think about a suitable response. But I'm engaged...

Clarissa Ward: What would you tell them?

Anjem Choudary: I don't deal with hypotheticals.

Clarissa Ward: It's a hypothetical question.

Anjem Choudary: I don't deal with hypotheticals. I deal with reality. You know, I mean, there are many things that could happen, hypothetically. Young men come to me...

Clarissa Ward: Why won't you answer the question?

Anjem Choudary: Because it's a...

Clarissa Ward: It really should be an easy question.

Anjem Choudary: I like to deal with reality. If that happens, you can have another interview with me, and I'll deal with it.

But hypotheticals are engaged in when we don’t fully know the reality. If we knew the entire reality, there’d be no need to entertain the hypothetical. Perhaps Choudary doesn’t “deal with hypotheticals” because they would force him to deal with his murderous ideology. Nonetheless, Choudary did deal with something rather like a hypothetical when he pointed out that if he had inspired 500 people to carry out a terrorist operation that he would be “sitting in prison.”

The refusal to engage in hypotheticals is often an evasion, a dodge, an exercise in dishonesty. One problem in interviewing evaders like Choudary is that if one gets too direct, they can end the interview. So an interviewer can’t push too hard. Ms. Ward seemed to know just how much to push Choudary so that he would reveal just what kind of guy he is. (Americans might even conclude that he’s a good example of bad seed.)

In “President’s executive action leaves too many what-ifs for those living in immigration shadows” on December 6 at the Kansas City Star, columnist Steve Rose reported on several timely hypotheticals:

What if? That’s what they want to know.… What if Congress is able to de-fund the so-called amnesty? …Or what if the courts decide what the president did by executive order is unconstitutional? …What if the next president decides to rescind Barack Obama’s executive order?

Rose explores those uncertainties and concludes that few of the 5 million will actually emerge from the shadows. Rose and the illegal aliens he interviewed came to that conclusion through… hypotheticals.

What hypotheticals require is speculation: “Reasoning based on inconclusive evidence.” Talk show hosts often steer their guests away from theorizing about the topic at hand by saying their show doesn’t deal in speculation, only facts. (“Just the facts, ma’am.”) Facts are fantastic, but the fact is the only reason folks would be theorizing is precisely because not all the facts are in evidence. If we knew all the facts, there’d be no need for speculation. So to talk show hosts I say: Stop delegitimizing speculation. Just tell your guests that their speculations ignore the facts.

Hypotheticals, speculation, theorizing, and such all get a bad rap, even from good people. Perhaps one of the reasons that they’re held in low esteem is because speculation can form the basis of an objection in a courtroom. If an attorney is asking a witness to speculate, the other lawyer can object. (Perhaps we’ve been watching too many reruns of "Perry Mason".)

There’s nothing “illegitimate” about hypotheticals. Indeed, if you go to the main page of Wikipedia and do a search on “hypothetical,” you’ll be redirected to the entry for “hypothesis.” Hypothesis is a key part of the scientific method. So, when people dismiss hypotheticals and speculation, they’re dismissing an important tool of science and discovery. (Here’s a new book which has as an apropos title: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.)

A hypothetical is an exercise in imagination. Einstein was an imaginative fellow, and he was rather fond of a particular type of hypothetical: the thought experiment. Young Al imagined what it’d be like if he were to chase a beam of light, which led to his Theory of Relativity.

We do not progress, much less make quantum leaps in knowledge, just by examining facts; we need a little imagination. We may not even be able to understand the facts, what they entail, what they “mean,” with just logic. Indeed, we may need all the imagination we can muster, because physicist Sir Arthur Eddington (supposedly) said that the universe “is stranger than we can imagine.” (But that’s gotta be speculation, right?)

The executive summary of “The 9/11 Commission Report” concluded that the terrorist attacks were due to a failure of imagination. I’d say that our protectors weren’t engaging in enough hypotheticals; they weren’t asking enough what-if questions. In a recent Q&A, I asked a finance guy if the 2008 financial crisis could have been nipped in the bud had we acted earlier with what I called a “preemptive TARP.” He responded: “No one saw it coming, and you can't preempt what you can't imagine.”

Perhaps our “imagination modules” are on the fritz. So, when something “unthinkable” happens, something we couldn’t imagine, we’re even more shocked. Remember the sense of unreality you had when watching the twin towers come down. This can’t be happening; punks with box cutters can’t knock down a fortress of American finance.

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to breed with those who can’t imagine. Such specimens are defective stock, perhaps even bad seed.

(POINTER: The day before the terrorist attack in Paris, Stubborn Things ran an article that proved to be timely; see the “PSA” at the end.)

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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