Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

*Alexander Reisach, Myriam Tami, Christof Seiler, Antoine Chambaz, Sebastian Weichwald*

Additive Noise Models (ANMs) are a common model class for causal discovery from observational data. Due to a lack of real-world data for which an underlying ANM is known, ANMs with randomly sampled parameters are commonly used to simulate data for the evaluation of causal discovery algorithms. While some parameters may be fixed by explicit assumptions, fully specifying an ANM requires choosing all parameters. Reisach et al. (2021) show that, for many ANM parameter choices, sorting the variables by increasing variance yields an ordering close to a causal order and introduce ‘var-sortability’ to quantify this alignment. Since increasing variances may be unrealistic and cannot be exploited when data scales are arbitrary, ANM data are often rescaled to unit variance in causal discovery benchmarking.We show that synthetic ANM data are characterized by another pattern that is scale-invariant and thus persists even after standardization: the explainable fraction of a variable’s variance, as captured by the coefficient of determination $R^2$, tends to increase along the causal order. The result is high ‘$R^2$-sortability’, meaning that sorting the variables by increasing $R^2$ yields an ordering close to a causal order. We propose a computationally efficient baseline algorithm termed ‘$R^2$-SortnRegress’ that exploits high $R^2$-sortability and that can match and exceed the performance of established causal discovery algorithms. We show analytically that sufficiently high edge weights lead to a relative decrease of the noise contributions along causal chains, resulting in increasingly deterministic relationships and high $R^2$. We characterize $R^2$-sortability on synthetic data with different simulation parameters and find high values in common settings. Our findings reveal high $R^2$-sortability as an assumption about the data generating process relevant to causal discovery and implicit in many ANM sampling schemes. It should be made explicit, as its prevalence in real-world data is an open question. For causal discovery benchmarking, we provide implementations of $R^2$-sortability, the $R^2$-SortnRegress algorithm, and ANM simulation procedures in our library CausalDisco at https://causaldisco.github.io/CausalDisco/.

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