Optimal Weighting for Causal Inference


Most of the studies in medicine, economics and social science are motivated by causal questions rather than associational ones. Examples include the evaluation of the effect of a treatment on time to recovery and the effect of school resources on student achievement. Randomized experiments have been considered the “gold standard” for estimating causal effects. However, economic and ethical limitations make randomized experiments not always viable and only observational data is accessible. Despite its potential, a major limitation of observational data is the presence of confounding factors, i.e., factors that are related to both the treatment and the outcome under study. Inverse probability weighting methods, which control for confounding by weighting each subject under study by the inverse of their probability of being treated given covariates, have been widely used to estimate causal effects from observational data. However, these methods are highly sensitive to misspecification of the treatment assignment model and can lead to low precision due to extreme weights. In this talk, I will present recent and ongoing optimization-based approaches that address the above limitations and provide optimal weights in case of cross-sectional (at a specific point in time) and longitudinal (over time) observational data. I will show the applicability of these methods on the evaluation of the effect of treatment initiation on treatment efficacy in patients infected with human immunodeficiency virus. In conclusion, I will present possible connections between the biostatistics literature on causal inference and the literature of reinforcement learning.

Cornell CIS, Ithaca, NY