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A Causal Framework for Decomposing Spurious Variations

Drago Plecko · Elias Bareinboim

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #926

Abstract: One of the fundamental challenges found throughout the data sciences is to explain why things happen in specific ways, or through which mechanisms a certain variable $X$ exerts influences over another variable $Y$. In statistics and machine learning, significant efforts have been put into developing machinery to estimate correlations across variables efficiently. In causal inference, a large body of literature is concerned with the decomposition of causal effects under the rubric of mediation analysis. However, many variations are spurious in nature, including different phenomena throughout the applied sciences. Despite the statistical power to estimate correlations and the identification power to decompose causal effects, there is still little understanding of the properties of spurious associations and how they can be decomposed in terms of the underlying causal mechanisms. In this manuscript, we develop formal tools for decomposing spurious variations in both Markovian and Semi-Markovian models. We prove the first results that allow a non-parametric decomposition of spurious effects and provide sufficient conditions for the identification of such decompositions. The described approach has several applications, ranging from explainable and fair AI to questions in epidemiology and medicine, and we empirically demonstrate its use.

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