Causal inference based on counterfactuals

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2005 Sep 13;5:28. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-5-28.


Background: The counterfactual or potential outcome model has become increasingly standard for causal inference in epidemiological and medical studies.

Discussion: This paper provides an overview on the counterfactual and related approaches. A variety of conceptual as well as practical issues when estimating causal effects are reviewed. These include causal interactions, imperfect experiments, adjustment for confounding, time-varying exposures, competing risks and the probability of causation. It is argued that the counterfactual model of causal effects captures the main aspects of causality in health sciences and relates to many statistical procedures.

Summary: Counterfactuals are the basis of causal inference in medicine and epidemiology. Nevertheless, the estimation of counterfactual differences pose several difficulties, primarily in observational studies. These problems, however, reflect fundamental barriers only when learning from observations, and this does not invalidate the counterfactual concept.

MeSH terms

  • Causality*
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic*
  • Decision Making
  • Effect Modifier, Epidemiologic*
  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical
  • Observer Variation