Causal Analysis in Theory and Practice

October 27, 2014

Are economists smarter than epidemiologists? (Comments on Imbens’s recent paper)

Filed under: Discussion,Economics,Epidemiology,General — eb @ 4:45 pm

In a recent survey on Instrumental Variables (link), Guido Imbens fleshes out the reasons why some economists “have not felt that graphical models have much to offer them.”

His main point is: “In observational studies in social science, both these assumptions [exogeneity and exclusion] tend to be controversial. In this relatively simple setting [3-variable IV setting] I do not see the causal graphs as adding much to either the understanding of the problem, or to the analyses.” [page 377]

What Imbens leaves unclear is whether graph-avoiding economists limit themselves to “relatively simple settings” because, lacking graphs, they cannot handle more than 3 variables, or do they refrain from using graphs to prevent those “controversial assumptions” from becoming transparent, hence amenable to scientific discussion and resolution.

When students and readers ask me how I respond to people of Imbens’s persuasion who see no use in tools they vow to avoid, I direct them to the post “The deconstruction of paradoxes in epidemiology”, in which Miquel Porta describes the “revolution” that causal graphs have spawned in epidemiology. Porta observes: “I think the “revolution — or should we just call it a renewal”? — is deeply changing how epidemiological and clinical research is conceived, how causal inferences are made, and how we assess the validity and relevance of epidemiological findings.”

So, what is it about epidemiologists that drives them to seek the light of new tools, while economists (at least those in Imbens’s camp) seek comfort in partial blindness, while missing out on the causal revolution? Can economists do in their heads what epidemiologists observe in their graphs? Can they, for instance, identify the testable implications of their own assumptions? Can they decide whether the IV assumptions (i.e., exogeneity and exclusion) are satisfied in their own models of reality? Of course the can’t; such decisions are intractable to the graph-less mind. (I have challenged them repeatedly to these tasks, to the sound of a pin-drop silence)

Or, are problems in economics different from those in epidemiology? I have examined the structure of typical problems in the two fields, the number of variables involved, the types of data available, and the nature of the research questions. The problems are strikingly similar.

I have only one explanation for the difference: Culture.

The arrow-phobic culture started twenty years ago, when Imbens and Rubin (1995) decided that graphs “can easily lull the researcher into a false sense of confidence in the resulting causal conclusions,” and Paul Rosenbaum (1995) echoed with “No basis is given for believing” […] “that a certain mathematical operation, namely this wiping out of equations and fixing of variables, predicts a certain physical reality” [ See discussions here. ]

Lingering symptoms of this phobia are still stifling research in the 2nd decade of our century, yet are tolerated as scientific options. As Andrew Gelman put it last month: “I do think it is possible for a forward-looking statistician to do causal inference in the 21st century without understanding graphical models.” (link)

I believe the most insightful diagnosis of the phenomenon is given by Larry Wasserman:
“It is my impression that the “graph people” have studied the Rubin approach carefully while the reverse is not true.” (link)

November 25, 2012

Conrad (Ontario/Canada) on SEM in Epidemiology

Filed under: Counterfactual,Epidemiology,structural equations — moderator @ 4:00 am

Conrad writes:

In the recent issue of IJE (, Tyler VanderWeele argues that SEM should be used in Epidemiology only when 1) the interest is on a wide range of effects 2) the purpose of the analysis is to generate hypothesis. However if the interest is on a single fixed exposure, he thinks traditional regression methods are more superior.

According to him, the latter relies on fewer assumptions e.g. we don’t need to know the functional form of the association between a confounder and exposure (or outcome) during estimation, and hence are less prone to bias. How valid is this argument given that some of (if not all) the causal modeling methods are simply a special case of SEM (e.g. the Robin’s G methods and even the regression methods he’s talking about).

Judea replies:

Dear Conrad,

Thank you for raising these questions about Tyler’s article. I believe several of Tyler’s statements stand the risk of being misinterpreted by epidemiologists, for they may create the impression that the use of SEM, including its nonparametric variety, is somehow riskier than the use of other techniques. This is not the case. I believe Tyler’s critics were aimed specifically at parametric SEM, such as those used in Arlinghaus etal (2012), but not at nonparametric SEMs which he favors and names “causal diagrams”. Indeed, nonparametric SEM’s are blessed with unequal transparency to assure that each and every assumption is visible and passes the scrutiny of scientific judgment.

While it is true that SEMs have the capacity to make bolder assumptions, some not discernible from experiments, (e.g., no confounding between mediator and outcome) this does not mean that investigators, acting properly, would make such assumptions when they stand contrary to scientific judgment, nor does it mean that investigators are under weaker protection from the ramifications of unwarranted assumptions. Today we know precisely which of SEM’s claims are discernible from experiments (i.e., reducible to do(x) expressions) and which are not (see Shpitser and Pearl, 2008)

I therefore take issue with Tyler’s statement: “SEMs themselves tend to make much stronger assumptions than these other techniques” (from his abstract) when applied to nonparametric analysis. SEMs do not make assumptions, nor do they “tend to make assumptions”; investigators do. I am inclined to believe that Tyler’s critics were aims at a specific application of SEM rather than SEM as a methodology.

Purging SEM from epidemiology would amount to purging counterfactuals from epidemiology — the latter draws its legitimacy from the former.

I also reject occasional calls to replace SEM and Causal Diagrams with weaker types of graphical models which presumably make weaker assumptions. No matter how we label alternative models (e.g., interventional graphs, agnostic graphs, causal Bayesian networks, FFRCISTG models, influence diagrams, etc.), they all must rest on judgmental assumptions and people think science (read SEM), not experiments. In other words, when an investigators asks him/herself whether an arrow from X to Y is warranted, the investigator does not ask whether an intervention on X would change the probability of Y (read: P(y|do(x)) = P(y)) but whether the function f in the mechanism y=f(x, u) depends on x for some u. Claims that the stronger assumptions made by SEMs (compared with interventional graphs) may have unintended consequences are supported by a few contrived cases where people can craft a nontrivial f(x,u) despite the equality P(y|do(x)) = P(y)). (See an example in Causality page 24.)

For a formal distinction between SEM and interventional graphs (also known as “Causal Bayes networks”, see Causality pages 23-24, 33-36). For more philosophical discussions defending counterfactuals and SEM against false alarms see:

I hope this help clarify the issue.

February 22, 2007

Back-door criterion and epidemiology

Filed under: Back-door criterion,Book (J Pearl),Epidemiology — moderator @ 9:03 am

The definition of the back-door condition (Causality, page 79, Definition 3.3.1) seems to be contrived. The exclusion of descendants of X (Condition (i)) seems to be introduced as an after fact, just because we get into trouble if we dont. Why cant we get it from first principles; first define sufficiency of Z in terms of the goal of removing bias and, then, show that, to achieve this goal, you neither want nor need descendants of X in Z.

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