Can we believe the DAGs? A comment on the relationship between causal DAGs and mechanisms

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O. O. Aalen, K. Røysland, J. M. Gran, R. Kouyos, T. Lange

Directed acyclic graphs (DAGs) play a large role in the modern approach to causal inference. DAGs describe the relationship between measurements taken at various discrete times including the effect of interventions. The causal mechanisms, on the other hand, would naturally be assumed to be a continuous process operating over time in a cause-effect fashion. How does such immediate causation, that is causation occurring over very short time intervals, relate to DAGs constructed from discrete observations? We introduce a time-continuous model and simulate discrete observations in order to judge the relationship between the DAG and the immediate causal model. We find that there is no clear relationship; indeed the Bayesian network described by the DAG may not relate to the causal model. Typically, discrete observations of a process will obscure the conditional dependencies that are represented in the underlying mechanistic model of the process. It is therefore doubtful whether DAGs are always suited to describe causal relationships unless time is explicitly considered in the model. We relate the issues to mechanistic modeling by using the concept of local (in)dependence. An example using data from the Swiss HIV Cohort Study is presented.

Original languageEnglish
JournalStatistical Methods in Medical Research
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)2294-2314
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2016

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