Robust Text Classification under Confounding Shift

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Abstract

As statistical classifiers become integrated into real-world applications, it is important to consider not only their accuracy but also their robustness to changes in the data distribution. Although identifying and controlling for confounding variables Z - correlated with both the input X of a classifier and its output Y - has been assiduously studied in empirical social science, it is often neglected in text classification. This can be understood by the fact that, if we assume that the impact of confounding variables does not change between the time we fit a model and the time we use it, then prediction accuracy should only be slightly affected. We show in this paper that this assumption often does not hold and that when the influence of a confounding variable changes from training time to prediction time (i.e. under confounding shift), the classifier accuracy can degrade rapidly. We use Pearl's back-door adjustment as a predictive framework to develop a model robust to confounding shift under the condition that Z is observed at training time. Our approach does not make any causal conclusions but by experimenting on 6 datasets, we show that our approach is able to outperform baselines 1) in controlled cases where confounding shift is manually injected between fitting time and prediction time 2) in natural experiments where confounding shift appears either abruptly or gradually 3) in cases where there is one or multiple confounders. Finally, we discuss multiple issues we encountered during this research such as the effect of noise in the observation of Z and the importance of only controlling for confounding variables.

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