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IDSS Distinguished Seminar Series

IDSS Distinguished Seminar – Essential Concepts of Causal Inference: A Remarkable History

December 12, 2017 @ 4:30 pm - 5:30 pm

Donald Rubin (Harvard University)

MIT Building 32, Room 141



I believe that a deep understanding of cause and effect, and how to estimate causal effects from data, complete with the associated mathematical notation and expressions, only evolved in the twentieth century. The crucial idea of randomized experiments was apparently first proposed in 1925 in the context of agricultural field trails but quickly moved to be applied also in studies of animal breeding and then in industrial manufacturing. The conceptual understanding, to me at least, was tied to ideas that were developing in quantum mechanics. The key ideas of randomized experiments evidently were not applied to studies of human beings until the 1950s, when such experiments began to be used in controlled medical trials, and then in social science, in education and economics. Humans are more complex than plants and animals, however, and with such trials came the attendant complexities of non-compliance with assigned treatment and the occurrence of Hawthorne and placebo effects. The formal application of the insights from earlier simpler experimental settings to more complex ones dealing with people, started in the 1970s and continue to this day, and include the bridging of classical mathematical ideas of experimentation, including fractional replication and geometrical formulations from the early twentieth century, with modern ideas that rely on powerful computing to implement many of the tedious aspects of design and analysis.


Donald B. Rubin is John L. Loeb Professor of Statistics, Harvard University, where he has been professor since 1983, and Department Chair for 13 of those years. He has been elected to be a Fellow/Member/Honorary Member of: the Woodrow Wilson Society, Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, American Statistical Association, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, International Statistical Institute, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, European Association of Methodology, the British Academy, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. As of 2017, he has authored/coauthored over 400 publications (including ten books), has four joint patents, and for many years has been one of the most highly cited authors in the world, with currently over 200,000 citations and nearly 20,000 in 2016 alone (Google Scholar). He has received honorary doctorate degrees from Otto Friedrich University, Bamberg, Germany; the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia; Universidad Santo Tomás, Bogotá, Colombia; Uppsala University, Sweden; and Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. He has also received honorary professorships from the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands; Shanghai Finance University, China; Nanjing University of Science & Technology, China; Xi’an University of Technology, China; and University of the Free State, Republic of South Africa.


MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307