Biology & Philosophy

, 34:51 | Cite as

Regression explanation and statistical autonomy

  • Joeri WitteveenEmail author


The phenomenon of regression toward the mean is notoriously liable to be overlooked or misunderstood; regression fallacies are easy to commit. But even when regression phenomena are duly recognized, it remains perplexing how they can feature in explanations. This article develops a philosophical account of regression explanations as “statistically autonomous” explanations that cannot be deepened by adducing details about causal histories, even if the explananda as such are embedded in the causal structure of the world. That regression explanations have statistical autonomy was first suggested by Ian Hacking and has recently been defended and elaborated by André Ariew, Yasha Rohwer, and Collin Rice. However, I will argue that these analyses fail to capture what regression’s statistical autonomy consists in and how it sets regression explanations apart from other kinds of explanation. The alternative account I develop also shows what is amiss with a recent denial of regression’s statistical autonomy. Marc Lange has argued that facts that can be explained as regression phenomena can in principle also be explained by citing a conjunction of causal histories. The account of regression explanation developed here shows that his argument is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of statistical autonomy.


Regression toward the mean Regression explanation Statistical autonomy Statistical explanation Regression fallacy Reversion Heredity Francis Galton 



I thank the audience of the Videnskabsteori Seminar at the Niels Bohr Institute and my colleagues in the Section for History and Philosophy of Science for helpful comments and suggestions. This work was supported by a Veni research Grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Grant Number 275-20-060.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Section for History and Philosophy of Science, Department of Science EducationUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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