The role of discretization scales in causal inference with continuous-time treatment

Jinghao Sun,Forrest W. Crawford


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There are well-established methods for identifying the causal effect of a time-varying treatment applied at discrete time points. However, in the real world, many treatments are continuous or have a finer time scale than the one used for measurement or analysis. While researchers have investigated the discrepancies between estimates under varying discretization scales using simulations and empirical data, it is still unclear how the choice of discretization scale affects causal inference. To address this gap, we present a framework to understand how discretization scales impact the properties of causal inferences about the effect of a time-varying treatment. We introduce the concept of "identification bias", which is the difference between the causal estimand for a continuous-time treatment and the purported estimand of a discretized version of the treatment. We show that this bias can persist even with an infinite number of longitudinal treatment-outcome trajectories. We specifically examine the identification problem in a class of linear stochastic continuous-time data-generating processes and demonstrate the identification bias of the g-formula in this context. Our findings indicate that discretization bias can significantly impact empirical analysis, especially when there are limited repeated measurements. Therefore, we recommend that researchers carefully consider the choice of discretization scale and perform sensitivity analysis to address this bias. We also propose a simple and heuristic quantitative measure for sensitivity concerning discretization and suggest that researchers report this measure along with point and interval estimates in their work. By doing so, researchers can better understand and address the potential impact of discretization bias on causal inference.
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