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Counterfactuals in Economics: A Commentary

Cartwright, N

Counterfactuals in Economics: A Commentary Thumbnail



J Keim Campbell

M.O O'Rourke

H.S Silverman


Counterfactuals are a hot topic in economics today, at least among economists concerned with methodology. I shall argue that on the whole this is a mistake. Usually the counterfactuals on offer are proposed as causal surrogates. But at best they provide a “sometimes” way for finding out about causal relations, not a stand-in for them. I say a “sometimes way” because they do so only in very special -- and rare -- kinds of systems. Otherwise they are irrelevant to establishing facts about causation. On the other hand, viewed just as straight counterfactuals, they are a washout as well. For they are rarely an answer to any genuine “What if…?” questions, questions of the kind we pose in planning and evaluation. For these two reasons I call the counterfactuals of recent interest in economics, impostor counterfactuals.


Cartwright, N. (2007). Counterfactuals in Economics: A Commentary. In J. Keim Campbell, M. O'Rourke, & H. Silverman (Eds.), Causation and explanation (191-216). Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

Publication Date Jan 1, 2007
Deposit Date Sep 22, 2015
Publicly Available Date Apr 21, 2016
Publisher Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press
Pages 191-216
Book Title Causation and explanation.
Publisher URL
Additional Information Also in N. Cartwright (2007) Hunting Causes and Using Them.


Accepted Book Chapter (378 Kb)

Copyright Statement
Deposited with kind permission of the MIT Press for non-commercial, scholarly use only. This chapter was originally published in J.K. Campbell, M. O'Rourke, and H.S. Silverstein (Eds.), Causation and Explanation, © 2007 MIT, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, (pp. 191-216).

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