Purdue University Graduate School

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Causal Inference in the Face of Assumption Violations

posted on 2024-04-26, 01:06 authored by Yuki OhnishiYuki Ohnishi

This dissertation advances the field of causal inference by developing methodologies in the face of assumption violations. Traditional causal inference methodologies hinge on a core set of assumptions, which are often violated in the complex landscape of modern experiments and observational studies. This dissertation proposes novel methodologies designed to address the challenges posed by single or multiple assumption violations. By applying these innovative approaches to real-world datasets, this research uncovers valuable insights that were previously inaccessible with existing methods.

First, three significant sources of complications in causal inference that are increasingly of interest are interference among individuals, nonadherence of individuals to their assigned treatments, and unintended missing outcomes. Interference exists if the outcome of an individual depends not only on its assigned treatment, but also on the assigned treatments for other units. It commonly arises when limited controls are placed on the interactions of individuals with one another during the course of an experiment. Treatment nonadherence frequently occurs in human subject experiments, as it can be unethical to force an individual to take their assigned treatment. Clinical trials, in particular, typically have subjects that do not adhere to their assigned treatments due to adverse side effects or intercurrent events. Missing values also commonly occur in clinical studies. For example, some patients may drop out of the study due to the side effects of the treatment. Failing to account for these considerations will generally yield unstable and biased inferences on treatment effects even in randomized experiments, but existing methodologies lack the ability to address all these challenges simultaneously. We propose a novel Bayesian methodology to fill this gap.

My subsequent research further addresses one of the limitations of the first project: a set of assumptions about interference structures that may be too restrictive in some practical settings. We introduce a concept of the ``degree of interference" (DoI), a latent variable capturing the interference structure. This concept allows for handling arbitrary, unknown interference structures to facilitate inference on causal estimands.

While randomized experiments offer a solid foundation for valid causal analysis, people are also interested in conducting causal inference using observational data due to the cost and difficulty of randomized experiments and the wide availability of observational data. Nonetheless, using observational data to infer causality requires us to rely on additional assumptions. A central assumption is that of \emph{ignorability}, which posits that the treatment is randomly assigned based on the variables (covariates) included in the dataset. While crucial, this assumption is often debatable, especially when treatments are assigned sequentially to optimize future outcomes. For instance, marketers typically adjust subsequent promotions based on responses to earlier ones and speculate on how customers might have reacted to alternative past promotions. This speculative behavior introduces latent confounders, which must be carefully addressed to prevent biased conclusions.

In the third project, we investigate these issues by studying sequences of promotional emails sent by a US retailer. We develop a novel Bayesian approach for causal inference from longitudinal observational data that accommodates noncompliance and latent sequential confounding.

Finally, we formulate the causal inference problem for the privatized data. In the era of digital expansion, the secure handling of sensitive data poses an intricate challenge that significantly influences research, policy-making, and technological innovation. As the collection of sensitive data becomes more widespread across academic, governmental, and corporate sectors, addressing the complex balance between making data accessible and safeguarding private information requires the development of sophisticated methods for analysis and reporting, which must include stringent privacy protections. Currently, the gold standard for maintaining this balance is Differential privacy.

Local differential privacy is a differential privacy paradigm in which individuals first apply a privacy mechanism to their data (often by adding noise) before transmitting the result to a curator. The noise for privacy results in additional bias and variance in their analyses. Thus, it is of great importance for analysts to incorporate the privacy noise into valid inference.

In this final project, we develop methodologies to infer causal effects from locally privatized data under randomized experiments. We present frequentist and Bayesian approaches and discuss the statistical properties of the estimators, such as consistency and optimality under various privacy scenarios.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Statistics

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jordan Awan

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Arman Sabbaghi

Additional Committee Member 2

Vinayak Rao

Additional Committee Member 3

Jun Xie