Why should we care about alternative history scenarios? Isn't it just mindless speculation that teaches us nothing?
British historian Niall Ferguson in his book, Virtual History, pointed out that raising "what if" questions and alternate scenarios are vital ways for individuals to learn from their mistakes and successes. In our personal lives, few human beings can avoid pondering "what if's" -- what if I didn't show up for that fateful encounter with the love of my life? What if my parents didn't meet and conceive me? Or as Ferguson speculates, "What if I had observed the speed limit, or refused that last drink?" And yet teachers of history often present material as if "events are in some way preprogrammed, so that what was, had to be." It makes the study of history deterministic, boring and often lifeless.
William Holmes, in reviewing What If's of American History on Amazon.com, points out that "History is often written as if outcomes were inevitable, as if the colonies were ordained to win the American Revolution or the Union to prevail in the Civil War. But history is contingent, and the only way to fully appreciate the significance of a given event is to think about what might have happened if things had turned out differently." Explaining the historical context of a given occurrence and then engaging in limited speculation about what might have happened if that event hadn't turned out the way it did can be "very illuminating," Holmes writes.