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Machine Learning for Causal Inference: On the Use of Cross-Fit Estimators


Zivich, Paul N. & Breskin, Alexander (2021). Machine Learning for Causal Inference: On the Use of Cross-Fit Estimators. Epidemiology, 32(3), 393-401. PMCID: PMC8012235


BACKGROUND: Modern causal inference methods allow machine learning to be used to weaken parametric modeling assumptions. However, the use of machine learning may result in complications for inference. Doubly robust cross-fit estimators have been proposed to yield better statistical properties.
METHODS: We conducted a simulation study to assess the performance of several different estimators for the average causal effect (ACE). The data generating mechanisms for the simulated treatment and outcome included log-transforms, polynomial terms, and discontinuities. We compared singly robust estimators (g-computation, inverse probability weighting) and doubly robust estimators (augmented inverse probability weighting, targeted maximum likelihood estimation). We estimated nuisance functions with parametric models and ensemble machine learning, separately. We further assessed doubly robust cross-fit estimators.
RESULTS: With correctly specified parametric models, all of the estimators were unbiased and confidence intervals achieved nominal coverage. When used with machine learning, the doubly robust cross-fit estimators substantially outperformed all of the other estimators in terms of bias, variance, and confidence interval coverage.
CONCLUSIONS: Due to the difficulty of properly specifying parametric models in high dimensional data, doubly robust estimators with ensemble learning and cross-fitting may be the preferred approach for estimation of the ACE in most epidemiologic studies. However, these approaches may require larger sample sizes to avoid finite-sample issues.


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Zivich, Paul N.
Breskin, Alexander