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Graphical causal models and collider bias

Summary:
Graphical causal models and collider bias Why would two independent variables suddenly become dependent when we condition on their common effect? To answer this question, we return again to the definition of conditioning as filtering by the value of the conditioning variable. When we condition on Z, we limit our comparisons to cases in which Z takes the same value. But remember that Z depends, for its value, on X and Y. So, when comparing cases where Z takes some value, any change in value of X must be compensated for by a change in the value of Y — otherwise, the value of Z would change as well. The reasoning behind this attribute of colliders — that conditioning on a collision node produces a dependence between the node’s parents — can be difficult to

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Graphical causal models and collider bias

Graphical causal models and collider biasWhy would two independent variables suddenly become dependent when we condition on their common effect? To answer this question, we return again to the definition of conditioning as filtering by the value of the conditioning variable. When we condition on Z, we limit our comparisons to cases in which Z takes the same value. But remember that Z depends, for its value, on X and Y. So, when comparing cases where Z takes some value, any change in value of X must be compensated for by a change in the value of Y — otherwise, the value of Z would change as well.

The reasoning behind this attribute of colliders — that conditioning on a collision node produces a dependence between the node’s parents — can be difficult to grasp at first. In the most basic situation where Z = X + Y, and X and Y are independent variables, we have the follow- ing logic: If I tell you that X = 3, you learn nothing about the potential value of Y, because the two numbers are independent. On the other hand, if I start by telling you that Z = 10, then telling you that X = 3 immediately tells you that Y must be 7. Thus, X and Y are dependent, given that Z = 10.

Students usually find this collider attribute rather perplexing. Why? My guess is the reason is most students — wrongly — think there can be no correlation without causation.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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