Dean Eckles on people, technology & inference

Economic imperialism and causal inference

And I, for one, welcome our new economist overlords…

Readers not in academic social science may take the title of this post as indicating I’m writing about the use of economic might to imperialist ends.1 Rather, economic imperialism is a practice of economists (and acolytes) in which they invade research territories that traditionally “belong” to other social scientific disciplines.2 See this comic for one way you can react to this.3

Economists bring their theoretical, statistical, and research-funding resources to bear on problems that might not be considered economics. For example, freakonomists like Levitt study sumo wrestlers and the effects of the legalization of abortion on crime. But, hey, if the Commerce Clause means that Congress can legislate everything, then, for the same reasons, economists can — no, must — study everything.

I am not an economist by training, but I have recently had reason to read quite a bit in econometrics. Overall, I’m impressed.4 Economists have recently taken causal inference — learning about cause and effect relationships, often from observational data — quite seriously. In the eyes of some, this has precipitated a “credibility revolution” in economics. Certainly, papers in economics and (especially) econometrics journals consider threats to the validity of causal inference at length.

On the other hand, causal inference in the rest of the social sciences is simultaneously over-inhibited and under-inhibited. As Judea Pearl observes in his book Causality, lack of clarity about statistical models (that social scientists often don’t understand) and causality has induced confusion about distinctions between statistical and causal issues (i.e., between estimation methods and identification).5

So, on the one had, many psychologists stick to experiments. Randomized experiments are, generally, the gold standard for investigating cause–effect relationships, so this can and often does go well. However, social psychologists have recently been obsessed with using “mediation analysis” to investigate the mechanisms by which causes they can manipulate produce effects of interest. Investigators often manipulate some factors experimentally and then measure one or more variables they believe fully or partially mediate the effect of those factors on their outcome. Then, under the standard Baron & Kenny approach, psychologists fit a few regression models, including regressing the outcome on both the experimentally manipulated variables and the simply measured (mediating) variables. The assumptions required for this analysis to identify any effects of interest are rarely satisfied (e.g., effects on individuals are homogenous).6 So psychologists are often over-inhibited (experiments only please!) and under-inhibited (mediation analysis).

Likewise, in more observational studies (in psychology, sociology, education, etc.), investigators are sometimes wary of making explicit causal claims. So instead of carefully stating the causal assumptions that would justify different causal conclusions, readers are left with phrases like “suggests” and “is consistent with” followed by causal claims. Authors then recommend that further research be conducted to better support these causal conclusions. With these kinds of recommendations awaiting, no wonder that economists find the territory ready for taking: they can just show up with econometrics tools and get to work on hard-won questions that “rightly belong to others”.

  1. Well, if economists have better funding sources, this might apply in some sense. []
  2. For arguments in favor of economic imperialism, see Lazear, E.P. (1999). Economic imperialism. NBER Working Paper No. 7300. []
  3. Or see this comic for imperialism by physicists. []
  4. At least by the contemporary literature on what I’ve been reading on — IVs, encouragement designs, endogenous interactions, matching estimators. But it is true that in some of these areas econometrics has been able to fruitfully borrow from work on potential outcomes in statistics and epidemiology. []
  5. Econometricians have made similar observations. []
  6. For a bit on this topic, see the discussion and links to papers here. []

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