Sense and Sensitivity Analysis: Simple Post-Hoc Analysis of Bias Due to Unobserved Confounding

03/03/2020 ∙ by Victor Veitch, et al. ∙ 0

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an observed association without known mechanism must be in want of a causal estimate. However, causal estimation from observational data often relies on the (untestable) assumption of `no unobserved confounding'. Violations of this assumption can induce bias in effect estimates. In principle, such bias could invalidate or reverse the conclusions of a study. However, in some cases, we might hope that the influence of unobserved confounders is weak relative to a `large' estimated effect, so the qualitative conclusions are robust to bias from unobserved confounding. The purpose of this paper is to develop Austen plots, a sensitivity analysis tool to aid such judgments by making it easier to reason about potential bias induced by unobserved confounding. We formalize confounding strength in terms of how strongly the confounder influences treatment assignment and outcome. For a target level of bias, an Austen plot shows the minimum values of treatment and outcome influence required to induce that level of bias. Domain experts can then make subjective judgments about whether such strong confounders are plausible. To aid this judgment, the Austen plot additionally displays the estimated influence strength of (groups of) the observed covariates. Austen plots generalize the classic sensitivity analysis approach of Imbens [Imb03]. Critically, Austen plots allow any approach for modeling the observed data and producing the initial estimate. We illustrate the tool by assessing biases for several real causal inference problems, using a variety of machine learning approaches for the initial data analysis. Code is available at



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