Discovering Causal Models with Optimization: Confounders, Cycles, and Instrument Validity
55 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2021 Last revised: 11 Oct 2023
Date Written: June 24, 2021
We propose a new optimization-based method for learning causal structures from observational data, a process known as causal discovery. Our method takes as input observational data over a set of variables and returns a graph in which causal relations are specified by directed edges. We consider a highly general search space that accommodates latent confounders and feedback cycles, which few extant methods do. We formulate the discovery problem as an integer program, and propose a solution technique that exploits the conditional independence structure in the data to identify promising edges for inclusion in the output graph. In the large-sample limit, our method recovers a graph that is (Markov) equivalent to the true data-generating graph. Computationally, our method is competitive with the state-of-the-art, and can solve in minutes instances that are intractable for alternative causal discovery methods. We leverage our method to develop a procedure for investigating the validity of an instrumental variable and demonstrate it on the influential instruments for estimating the returns to education from Angrist and Krueger (1991) and Card (1993). In particular, our test complements existing instrument tests by revealing the precise causal pathways that undermine instrument validity, highlighting the unique merits of the graphical perspective on causality.
Keywords: causal inference, causal discovery, instrumental variables, graphical models, optimization
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