Abstract: Consider the problem of estimating the causal effect of some attribute of a text document; for example: what effect does writing a polite vs. rude email have on response time? To estimate a causal effect from observational data, we need to adjust for confounding aspects of the text that affect both the treatment and outcome---e.g., the topic or writing level of the text. These confounding aspects are unknown a priori, so it seems natural to adjust for the entirety of the text (e.g., using a transformer). However, causal identification and estimation procedures rely on the assumption of overlap: for all levels of the adjustment variables, there is randomness leftover so that every unit could have (not) received treatment. Since the treatment here is itself an attribute of the text, it is perfectly determined, and overlap is apparently violated. The purpose of this paper is to show how to handle causal identification and obtain robust causal estimation in the presence of apparent overlap violations. In brief, the idea is to use supervised representation learning to produce a data representation that preserves confounding information while eliminating information that is only predictive of the treatment. This representation then suffices for adjustment and satisfies overlap. Adapting results on non-parametric estimation, we show that this procedure shows robustness with respect to conditional outcome misestimation and yields a low-bias estimator that admits valid uncertainty quantification under weak conditions. Empirical results show reductions in bias and strong improvements in uncertainty quantification relative to the natural (transformer-based) baseline.
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