I would say that questions that look at the "what if" of historical events are off topic. Is there a consensus on this?

Note that this comes from the World War II - Could The Axis Powers have won under any circumstances? question.

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In general and in principal, I would agree. However, the real beauty of the SE sites is that the community gets to decide. I agree with some of the responses below that it was an interesting question, and there were some really good answers. Having said that, it really doesn't fit within our guidelines. I didn't want to close it outright until the community had a chance to weigh in. Always remember that you have a vote in deciding whether or not a question is appropriate. –  Steven Drennon Mar 20 '12 at 13:22
    
@StevenDrennon: I added this question on meta just so the community could decide how to handle those questions as I think they may well get more numerous. –  Sardathrion Mar 20 '12 at 13:24
    
I totally agree, and I'm glad you did! We need more discussions like this to help get the site molded. It's important that others who find this understand that the Meta area is more open to discussion, so I appreciate you linking your comment to the original question to this discussion. Well done! –  Steven Drennon Mar 20 '12 at 18:51

8 Answers 8

It all depends case by case.

In general, "what if"s are a bad thing that should plainly be closed.

Still, someone might word it cleverly in such a way which makes sense and is answerable. This can happen only if the scope of that question is very limited, of course.

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I'm not decisive on these yet, although I am coming from a place where I used to love the old Marvel "What If" comics, so I don't really mind what if's in the perspective where you look at the history and can pull out the "why the what if" never happened. Usually there is a chain of events that need to be pulled together to understand why certain events happened the way they did, and sometimes the what if questions do bring that out. Although the why questions can do the same.

Its hard to say in general what questions are what if's and shouldn't be asked, you always have the option to vote down the question and see if others feel the same. This is a community site that you are helping to build, so we have wide viewpoints and need to take in all kinds of opinions to determine where we go as a community.

I was ok with the question as asked, although if it was badly formatted and didn't have much thought behind it then I'd probably opt to close. That is the rule with any really badly formatted question though.

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I am sorry if my question has broken any terms of the site, that wasn't my intention. I have tried to structure the question carefully but could have probably made a better job of it. Lesson learned for next time, thanks.

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Don't worry about it. People have made very good points for and against and it was a worthwhile question if only for that. This site is in beta, so we are all fumbling to see what it will eventually become. –  Sardathrion Mar 20 '12 at 7:14
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Considering the amount of information and the depth of answers in the question, even though it was closed, I'd say good job. –  MichaelF Mar 20 '12 at 11:29

"What if" questions seem to fall under "good subjective, bad subjective" category. Some are good, others less so.

An example of a bad question was something like "Why did the British sell opium to China instead of savva ganga? (since deleted). The latter never entered the picture historically, so the author was really asking, "could the British have pursued their "mercantile" policies using a less harmful drug?" as opposed to "Why didn't the British pursue another, comparably viable alternative?"

On the other hand, I know of at least one widely contemplated scenario of how the Axis could have won World War II (absent timely U.S. intervention), which I discussed in an answer.

So a less subjective wording of the question might be, "are there any widely contemplated scenarios featuring an Axis victory in World War II?" Since the answer to this objective question is yes, this "what if" question is a "good subjective" question.

And there was my own question Did The Soviet Union Need Both Prongs to Succeed At the Battle of Stalingrad?

After some thought I concluded that the whole maneuver would have succeeded even IF the southern prong had failed. This hypothetical is grounded in surrounding facts: 1) the Germans had their chance to stop the southern prong and chose not to do so. 2) The Manstein relief expedition (from the south) failed in large part because Hitler had ordered Paulus to remain in Stalingrad rather than head south for a link-up/breakout.

"What if" questions can be good if they are answerable from surrounding facts.

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Questions regarding scholarly allohistory are fine. They're about a scholarly practice.

I was incredibly surprised that the scholarly analysis of historical and pseudohistorical discourses was closed, given that this to is a field where the objective standards of scholarly analysis provide a grounding for an answer.

Questions of positive causation are fine, and do involve scholars dealing with counterfactual causative arguments, though causation questions should primarily focus on the found causes in scholarship rather than the discussion of alternate hypotheses disproven. Positive causation is a basic element of scholarly historical practice.

Questions asking "What if Margaret Thatcher was raised in Thaxted" are clearly off topic, they invite non-scholarly speculation, have no grounding in literature, and are best answered in fictive fora elsewhere.

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I agree with Hauser, Lohoris, and MichaelF on this. I think that a well worded "what if" question can spawn lively discussion about the factors that go into historical outcomes. It forces the reader to consider conditions that would justify their outcome. That being said the "what if" format does seem like it would be more prone to pop-culture like historical reasoning and not necessarily encourage people to provide well reasoned answers. I think case-by-case is the best policy here.

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In fact if you look at the answers to the question that spawned this meta question you will see that the answers are all fairly long, and detailed. Those seem to be the types of answers we would want to foster and encourage.

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I would argue that all "what if" questions should be virtually banned by default, and replaced by more specific hypotheses which can actually be challenged (ex. "X is the likely cause of Y" or "if X had occurred, Y would be more likely to have resulted"). The mentioned post is a good example of the problem of what if questions as they ignore larger historical forces (economic, popular, cultural, etc) and focus on "accident of history" type responses. Such responses place undue weight on individual actors over the aforementioned historical forces which are a far more potent influence on their actions and thus of far more interest. Furthermore, the resulting debate would be unfocused as where with a specific hypothesis, a more productive and interesting debate would follow.

It is obvious from the long list of questions asked in the post linked to by the asker are not so much historical questions as they are questions on specific military tactics of that particular age. While there is a historical component to these tactics, many of these questions lack clear answers to the larger question asked (ie. "could the axis powers have won if X?") and will virtually always lack clear answers. This is because there is a myriad of potential variables which could intervene that go well beyond any particular tactical or even strategic decision.

Even in the context of a specific military engagement there is always the countering question of what other actors would have done in response, which is often difficult to answer. Even if a logical outcome can be determined based on a specific tactic, it then becomes necessary to explain how this would effect the larger environment and in such a fashion more and more speculation is required. It is more conducive to a productive historical debate to isolate a variable to the highest degree possible. What if questions effectively do the opposite.

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While I agree with most of your premise we are meant to be a Q&A site, so while having a well thought out hypothesis question is good I can see cases where people would want the detail. Putting in the detail is far more than we need for a Q&A site and would be offputting to most people who come here. This is a community site, if you don't like the question vote it down, this one was closed because of that yet it does have the kind of rich answers we want for other questions. –  MichaelF Mar 21 '12 at 17:02

Upfront, I'm not saysing we should ban every question with "What if/Why not ..." in title, espcially if the asker specifies a clear scope and background in the question text. But if there is no question text at all, these questions have a higher chance to earn my close and down vote than a question without such a title. I agree with Lohoris and MichaelF that we should handle them case by case.

Cons:

  • the line between creating fairy tales/fiction and real history is often very thin, and so it becomes really hard for the voters to vote the most plausible and best referenced answers ("what if/why not" scenarios have no references, they didn't happen :) )

  • without a clear scope these questions are more likely to create discussion then specific answers on specific questions

Pros:

  • These questions seem a popular line of reasoning (process of elimination) when trying to understand historical developments (probably even among prof. historians). "Would scenario Y not have been more likely to happen, given the conditions at this time?" etc. Though, you will probably not find them in an scientific paper or book, as it is mosty rather speculation, based on hypothetical assumptions.

  • It looks like (correct me) that often newcomer to this site ask those questions and we would drive them away (more visits/questions per day) by hard and fast down & close votes. So the regulars should close vote this questions if they are poor explained and keep them in the vote ranking below our top quality questions with down votes.

Criterions (I would use for close vote):

  • pretty hypothetical assumptions in the question text

  • is it reasonable based on known facts that the proposed fictional scenario of the questioner could have happened? He should give some facts/wikipedia links in the question text.

  • If we close a lot of those questions (we should point the newbies in the comments to a meta thread or accepted "what if" questions)

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