To Impute or not to Impute? Missing Data in Treatment Effect Estimation

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Missing data is a systemic problem in practical scenarios that causes noise and bias when estimating treatment effects. This makes treatment effect estimation from data with missingness a particularly tricky endeavour. A key reason for this is that standard assumptions on missingness are rendered insufficient due to the presence of an additional variable, treatment, besides the individual and the outcome. Having a treatment variable introduces additional complexity with respect to why some variables are missing that is not fully explored by previous work. In our work we identify a new missingness mechanism, which we term mixed confounded missingness (MCM), where some missingness determines treatment selection and other missingness is determined by treatment selection. Given MCM, we show that naively imputing all data leads to poor performing treatment effects models, as the act of imputation effectively removes information necessary to provide unbiased estimates. However, no imputation at all also leads to biased estimates, as missingness determined by treatment divides the population in distinct subpopulations, where estimates across these populations will be biased. Our solution is selective imputation, where we use insights from MCM to inform precisely which variables should be imputed and which should not. We empirically demonstrate how various learners benefit from selective imputation compared to other solutions for missing data.