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Commentary: The formal approach to quantitative causal inference in epidemiology: misguided or misrepresented?

Daniel, RM; De Stavola, BL; Vansteelandt, S; (2016) Commentary: The formal approach to quantitative causal inference in epidemiology: misguided or misrepresented? International Journal of Epidemiology , 45 (6) pp. 1817-1829. 10.1093/ije/dyw227. Green open access

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Abstract

Two recent articles, one by Vandenbroucke, Broadbent and Pearce (henceforth VBP) and the other by Krieger and Davey Smith (henceforth KDS), criticize what these two sets of authors characterize as the mainstream of the modern ‘causal inference’ school in epidemiology. The criticisms made by these authors are severe; VBP label the field both ‘wrong in theory’ and ‘wrong in practice’, and KDS—at least in some settings—feel that the field not only ‘bark[s] up the wrong tree’ but ‘miss[es] the forest entirely’. More specifically, the school of thought, and the concepts and methods within it, are painted as being applicable only to a very narrow range of investigations, to the exclusion of most of the important questions and study designs in modern epidemiology, such as the effects of genetic variants, the study of ethnic and gender disparities and the use of study designs that do not closely mirror randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Furthermore, the concepts and methods are painted as being potentially highly misleading even within this narrow range in which they are deemed applicable. We believe that most of VBP’s and KDS’s criticisms stem from a series of misconceptions about the approach they criticize. In this response, therefore, we aim first to paint a more accurate picture of the formal causal inference approach, and then to outline the key misconceptions underlying VBP’s and KDS’s critiques. KDS in particular criticize directed acyclic graphs (DAGs), using three examples to do so. Their discussion highlights further misconceptions concerning the role of DAGs in causal inference, and so we devote the third section of the paper to addressing these. In our Discussion we present further objections we have to the arguments in the two papers, before concluding that the clarity gained from adopting a rigorous framework is an asset, not an obstacle, to answering more reliably a very wide range of causal questions using data from observational studies of many different designs.

Type: Article
Title: Commentary: The formal approach to quantitative causal inference in epidemiology: misguided or misrepresented?
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyw227
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw227
Language: English
Additional information: © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Epidemiological Association. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Population Health Sciences > UCL GOS Institute of Child Health
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Population Health Sciences > UCL GOS Institute of Child Health > Population, Policy and Practice Dept
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10057239
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