I am a young, inexperienced freshman in high school, and my class has been assigned a short research paper. It involves asking a what-if question regarding historical cause-and-effect (for example, "if Hitler had never been born, would the Holocaust have transpired?"), taking a simple Yes/No stance and then supporting your claims with evidence. To all of those seasoned in these activities, it may seem like cookie-cutter business. But I'm afraid I made a fatal flaw early on.

You see, because our class is naturally unaccustomed to writing long-winded essays where evidence and references reign supreme, the teacher has conveniently broken down the assignment into small, manageable chunks. The topic I chose was, to quote:

"If the Inca empire hadn't suffered a civil war, would the Spanish have been able to conquer them as easily?"

I chose this topic because my nationality lies in Peru, the country from where the empire originated from. But what I find is a conflicting number of sources, both in literature and on the internet. My original intent was to say "No", and build off from there, but there seems to be an almost equal number of reasons to argue "Yes". I'm even considering switching sides entirely, but I fear doing so will be messy affair, especially since I've already turned in my rough thesis to the teacher.

What I ask for is how some of you professionals handle research papers such as these. If not an immediate quencher of my unquenchable worries, at least it'll give me a sense of direction and boost my meager confidence.

  • 6
    Note that OP is not asking a counterfactual; he is asking how to manage conflicting evidence, which is a core skill in historiography. I suspect that (a) spotting bias is key to the solution and (b) the teacher has failed to exercise adequate control over the scope of the hypothesis.
    – MCW
    Mar 26, 2017 at 12:14
  • This question is not on history. "Alternative history" is not within the scope of this list. Neither "essay writing" is.
    – Alex
    Mar 26, 2017 at 13:25

3 Answers 3


I'd say that the original flaw in your approach was to choose the conclusion and then look for evidence to support it. Working this way leads to cherry-picking evidence that suits your conclusion (and, possibly, avoiding evidence that opposes it). As you've discovered, by picking an answer in advance, you can end up backing the wrong horse if your actual reseach leads to the alternative conclusion.

The proper approach is to assemble all of the evidence first and then decide upon a conclusion based on the balance of that evidence. It might not always be the correct conclusion, because in some cases crucial evidence might be missing, but it's certainly a more professional approach.

In the case of "what if...?" counter-factuals, it's always more complicated because the relationships of cause and effect aren't always obvious or even identifiable. That's one of the reasons that counter-factual questions are off-topic here, they result in too much speculation over fact.

  • 1
    This approach is often called "The Unscientific Method"
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 27, 2017 at 0:09

I would agree with Killing time. Adding to his answer I would say that a large part of historic investigation is being able to take a source, evaluate bias and weight it against your current evidence. This can sometimes lead to a change in conclusion. Knowing when this is appropriate can be difficult but can also lead to an increased level of acceptance of your thesis. Going where the evidence takes you no matter if you are right or wrong should build you respect. If your teacher doesn't accept that then I would question them. I would also add that usually teachers use these "pre-paper" tasks to just validate you have started thinking about your topic so I wouldn't fret over it.


In this time of so many divisions and attitudes I would choose to be a resolutionist rather than the old school either or culprit. Please consider taking another road and talk more about the influences that are occurring on the either side or on the or side. Sometimes assignments are made by teacher to see who are the followers or the leaders. Perhaps you should think outside the box and simply go to a higher level. Toss your original plan and make an inspired new plan

  • 3
    Hello & thank you for your answer! I think you've got the makings of a useful answer here, but it doesn't really expand on what you mean by what you say.
    – gktscrk
    Nov 26, 2020 at 6:31

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