Reinterpreting causal discovery as the task of predicting unobserved joint statistics

May, 2023


If X,Y,Z denote sets of random variables, two different data sources may contain samples from PX,Y and PY,Z, respectively. We argue that causal discovery can help inferring properties of the `unobserved joint distributions' PX,Y,Z or PX,Z. The properties may be conditional independences (as in `integrative causal inference') or also quantitative statements about dependences.

More generally, we define a learning scenario where the input is a subset of variables and the label is some statistical property of that subset. Sets of jointly observed variables define the training points, while unobserved sets are possible test points. To solve this learning task, we infer, as an intermediate step, a causal model from the observations that then entails properties of unobserved sets. Accordingly, we can define the VC dimension of a class of causal models and derive generalization bounds for the predictions.

Here, causal discovery becomes more modest and better accessible to empirical tests than usual: rather than trying to find a causal hypothesis that is `true' a causal hypothesis is {\it useful} whenever it correctly predicts statistical properties of unobserved joint distributions. This way, a sparse causal graph that omits weak influences may be more useful than a dense one (despite being less accurate) because it is able to reconstruct the full joint distribution from marginal distributions of smaller subsets.

Within such a `pragmatic' application of causal discovery, some popular heuristic approaches become justified in retrospect. It is, for instance, allowed to infer DAGs from partial correlations instead of conditional independences if the DAGs are only used to predict partial correlations.

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