Wright’s path analysis: Causal inference in the early twentieth century

Theoria. An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science 39 (1):67–88 (2024)
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Despite being a milestone in the history of statistical causal inference, Sewall Wright’s 1918 invention of path analysis did not receive much immediate attention from the statistical and scientific community. Through a careful historical analysis, this paper reveals some previously overlooked philosophical issues concerning the history of causal inference. Placing the invention of path analysis in a broader historical and intellectual context, I portray the scientific community’s initial lack of interest in the method as a natural consequence of relevant scientific and philosophical conditions. In addition to Karl Pearson’s positivist refutation of causation, I contend that the acceptance of path analysis faced several other challenges, including the introduction of a new formalism, conceptual barriers to causal inference, and the lack of model-based statistical thinking. The presence of these challenges shows that the delayed progress in causal inference in the early twentieth century was inevitable.

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Zili Dong
University of Western Ontario (PhD)


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