The dry definition of this is “contrary to fact,” which makes sense given the word structure.
But more commonly, a “counterfactual” is speculation about “what could have been” under different circumstances. Someone engaging in counterfactuals is saying, “if things were different, this is how something would have gone.”
This is rampant in politics: “If [insert name here] was president, none of this would have happened!”
The problem with counterfactuals is that they are impossible to prove or disprove. Someone is literally inventing a false reality, and then commenting on it. Who knows what would have actually happened under different circumstances?
Why I Looked It Up
I’ve used the word a lot, but got into a debate about the disastrous August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Several people in the debate made claims similar to, “If Donald Trump was still president, this would have gone differently.”
I accused them of manufacturing counterfactuals, but then had some doubt about whether I was using the word correctly, so I looked it up.