Improving Causal Inferences in Risk Analysis

August 24, 2012

Tony Cox

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Recent headlines and scientific articles projecting significant human health benefits from changes in exposures too often depend on unvalidated subjective expert judgments and modeling assumptions, especially about the causal interpretation of statistical associations. Some of these assessments are demonstrably biased toward false positives and inflated effects estimates. More objective, data-driven methods of causal analysis are available to risk analysts. These can help to reduce bias and increase the credibility and realism of health effects risk assessments and causal claims. For example, quasi-experimental designs and analysis allow alternative (non-causal) explanations for associations to be tested, and refuted if appropriate. Panel data studies examine empirical relations between changes in hypothesized causes and effects. Intervention and change-point analyses identify effects (e.g., significant changes in health effects time series) and estimate their sizes. Granger causality tests, conditional independence tests, and counterfactual causality models test whether a hypothesized cause helps to predict its presumed effects, and quantify exposure-specific contributions to response rates in differently exposed groups, even in the presence of confounders. Causal graph models let causal mechanistic hypotheses be tested and refined using biomarker data. These methods can potentially revolutionize the study of exposure-induced health effects, helping to overcome pervasive false-positive biases and move the health risk assessment scientific community toward more accurate assessments of the impacts of exposures and interventions on public health.