Misunderstandings Among Experimentalists and Observationalists about Causal Inference


Imai, Kosuke, Gary King, and Elizabeth Stuart. 2008. Misunderstandings Among Experimentalists and Observationalists about Causal Inference, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A 171, part 2: 481–502. Copy at http://j.mp/mlSzFA
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We attempt to clarify, and suggest how to avoid, several serious misunderstandings about and fallacies of causal inference in experimental and observational research. These issues concern some of the most basic advantages and disadvantages of each basic research design. Problems include improper use of hypothesis tests for covariate balance between the treated and control groups, and the consequences of using randomization, blocking before randomization, and matching after treatment assignment to achieve covariate balance. Applied researchers in a wide range of scientific disciplines seem to fall prey to one or more of these fallacies, and as a result make suboptimal design or analysis choices. To clarify these points, we derive a new four-part decomposition of the key estimation errors in making causal inferences. We then show how this decomposition can help scholars from different experimental and observational research traditions better understand each other’s inferential problems and attempted solutions.