We need to approach hypothetical statements with great caution. The Hypothesis Contrary to Fact fallacy occurs when one argues something might have happened, but it didn’t. Usually an “if” clause is the give-away, but the “if” isn’t always present. Basing a premise on something that never happened is, of course, counter-factual and generally anticipates a particular answer in order to push the argument in a particular direction without offering any real support. Frequently, the Hypothesis Contrary to Fact results in ridiculous claims. Here are some examples:
1. If you didn’t flip heads on the coin toss, it would have been tails.
2. If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would agree with me.
3. Poverty would be a much worse problem in this country had we not implemented the programs of President Johnson’s “Great Society.”
4. If the team had played better, we would have won the game.
You can’t demonstrate anything with a hypothesis that is untrue. If something didn’t happen, then that non-event cannot be used as support. And it is a waste of time to argue about things that never happened. People who have no actual support often resort to this fallacy to prop up a weak claim.
Sentence 1 clearly shows how this fallacy can become a ridiculous argument pretty easily. Claiming something that never happened could have any influence on the current situation is nonsense. In this case, the premise and the support stand in direct contradiction of each other. Since there are only two possibilities (heads or tails), this claim is pretty silly.
Sentence 2 brings Lincoln back from the dead in order to support a current opinion. Maybe he would agree, but maybe he wouldn’t. No one can know how Lincoln would react to a current argument because Lincoln is not here to tell us. We’re on very shaky ground when we try to determine how someone who is dead would be thinking about current issues. This, too, is a waste of time. Since the person in question is dead, it’s impossible for them to be thinking. We tend to run into this problem a lot when someone is telling us what the Founding Fathers would have thought about some policy issue or another. Telling us what the dead think is usually going to be a problem.
Sentence 3 is an example in which there is no ‘if’ clause to give us a cue. In this sentence, the phrase “had we not” is doing the job of the ‘if’ in the other sentences, making it clear that what is being referred to never took place. We can show the programs from “The Great Society” are having a positive or negative impact on poverty, but there is no way to know what would have happened without the programs. We can only speculate, but why speculate about what never happened?
Sentence 4 shows a certain circularity can be present in these kinds of claims. ‘Playing better’ and ‘winning the game’ are very close to meaning the same thing. Still, the end result of better play is not always victory. The team could play better and still lose due to unlucky breaks unrelated to the level of skill shown by the team.