Representation Learning Based Causal Inference in Observational Studies
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This dissertation investigates novel statistical approaches for causal effect estimation in observational settings, where controlled experimentation is infeasible and confounding is the main hurdle in estimating causal effect. As such, deconfounding constructs the main subject of this dissertation, that is (i) to restore the covariate balance between treatment groups and (ii) to attenuate spurious correlations in training data to derive valid causal conclusions that generalize. By incorporating ideas from representation learning, adversarial matching, generative causal estimation, and invariant risk modeling, this dissertation establishes a causal framework that balances the covariate distribution in latent representation space to yield individualized estimations, and further contributes novel perspectives on causal effect estimation based on invariance principles. The dissertation begins with a systematic review and examination of classical propensity score based balancing schemes for population-level causal effect estimation, presented in Chapter 2. Three causal estimands that target different foci in the population are considered: average treatment effect on the whole population (ATE), average treatment effect on the treated population (ATT), and average treatment effect on the overlap population (ATO). The procedure is demonstrated in a naturalistic driving study (NDS) to evaluate the causal effect of cellphone distraction on crash risk. While highlighting the importance of adopting causal perspectives in analyzing risk factors, discussions on the limitations in balance efficiency, robustness against high-dimensional data and complex interactions, and the need for individualization are provided to motivate subsequent developments. Chapter 3 presents a novel generative Bayesian causal estimation framework named Balancing Variational Neural Inference of Causal Effects (BV-NICE). Via appealing to the Robinson factorization and a latent Bayesian model, a novel variational bound on likelihood is derived, explicitly characterized by the causal effect and propensity score. Notably, by treating observed variables as noisy proxies of unmeasurable latent confounders, the variational posterior approximation is re-purposed as a stochastic feature encoder that fully acknowledges representation uncertainties. To resolve the imbalance in representations, BV-NICE enforces KL-regularization on the respective representation marginals using Fenchel mini-max learning, justified by a new generalization bound on the counterfactual prediction accuracy. The robustness and effectiveness of this framework are demonstrated through an extensive set of tests against competing solutions on semi-synthetic and real-world datasets. In recognition of the reliability issue when extending causal conclusions beyond training distributions, Chapter 4 argues ascertaining causal stability is the key and introduces a novel procedure called Risk Invariant Causal Estimation (RICE). By carefully re-examining the relationship between statistical invariance and causality, RICE cleverly leverages the observed data disparities to enable the identification of stable causal effects. Concretely, the causal inference objective is reformulated under the framework of invariant risk modeling (IRM), where a population-optimality penalty is enforced to filter out un-generalizable effects across heterogeneous populations. Importantly, RICE allows settings where counterfactual reasoning with unobserved confounding or biased sampling designs become feasible. The effectiveness of this new proposal is verified with respect to a variety of study designs on real and synthetic data. In summary, this dissertation presents a flexible causal inference framework that acknowledges the representation uncertainties and data heterogeneities. It enjoys three merits: improved balance to complex covariate interactions, enhanced robustness to unobservable latent confounders, and better generalizability to novel populations.
General Audience Abstract
Reasoning cause and effect is the innate ability of a human. While the drive to understand cause and effect is instinct, the rigorous reasoning process is usually trained through the observation of countless trials and failures. In this dissertation, we embark on a journey to explore various principles and novel statistical approaches for causal inference in observational studies. Throughout the dissertation, we focus on the causal effect estimation which answers questions like ``what if" and ``what could have happened". The causal effect of a treatment is measured by comparing the outcomes corresponding to different treatment levels of the same unit, e.g. ``what if the unit is treated instead of not treated?". The challenge lies in the fact that i) a unit only receives one treatment at a time and therefore it is impossible to directly compare outcomes of different treatment levels; ii) comparing the outcomes across different units may involve bias due to confounding as the treatment assignment potentially follows a systematic mechanism. Therefore, deconfounding constructs the main hurdle in estimating causal effects. This dissertation presents two parallel principles of deconfounding: i) balancing, i.e., comparing difference under similar conditions; ii) contrasting, i.e., extracting invariance under heterogeneous conditions. Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 explore causal effect through balancing, with the former systematically reviews a classical propensity score weighting approach in a conventional data setting and the latter presents a novel generative Bayesian framework named Balancing Variational Neural Inference of Causal Effects(BV-NICE) for high-dimensional, complex, and noisy observational data. It incorporates the advance deep learning techniques of representation learning, adversarial learning, and variational inference. The robustness and effectiveness of the proposed framework are demonstrated through an extensive set of experiments. Chapter 4 extracts causal effect through contrasting, emphasizing that ascertaining stability is the key of causality. A novel causal effect estimating procedure called Risk Invariant Causal Estimation(RICE) is proposed that leverages the observed data disparities to enable the identification of stable causal effects. The improved generalizability of RICE is demonstrated through synthetic data with different structures, compared with state-of-art models. In summary, this dissertation presents a flexible causal inference framework that acknowledges the data uncertainties and heterogeneities. By promoting two different aspects of causal principles and integrating advance deep learning techniques, the proposed framework shows improved balance for complex covariate interactions, enhanced robustness for unobservable latent confounders, and better generalizability for novel populations.
- Doctoral Dissertations