Researchers in the social sciences are often interested in the relationship between text and an outcome of interest, where the goal is to both uncover latent patterns in the text and predict outcomes for unseen texts. To this end, this paper develops the heterogeneous supervised topic model (HSTM), a probabilistic approach to text analysis and prediction. HSTMs posit a joint model of text and outcomes to find heterogeneous patterns that help with both text analysis and prediction. The main benefit of HSTMs is that they capture heterogeneity in the relationship between text and the outcome across latent topics. To fit HSTMs, we develop a variational inference algorithm based on the auto-encoding variational Bayes framework. We study the performance of HSTMs on eight datasets and find that they consistently outperform related methods, including fine-tuned black-box models. Finally, we apply HSTMs to analyze news articles labeled with pro- or anti-tone. We find evidence of differing language used to signal a pro- and anti-tone.
A fundamental goal of scientific research is to learn about causal relationships. However, despite its critical role in the life and social sciences, causality has not had the same importance in Natural Language Processing (NLP), which has traditionally placed more emphasis on predictive tasks. This distinction is beginning to fade, with an emerging area of interdisciplinary research at the convergence of causal inference and language processing. Still, research on causality in NLP remains scattered across domains without unified definitions, benchmark datasets and clear articulations of the challenges and opportunities in the application of causal inference to the textual domain, with its unique properties. In this survey, we consolidate research across academic areas and situate it in the broader NLP landscape. We introduce the statistical challenge of estimating causal effects with text, encompassing settings where text is used as an outcome, treatment, or to address confounding. In addition, we explore potential uses of causal inference to improve the robustness, fairness, and interpretability of NLP models. We thus provide a unified overview of causal inference for the NLP community.1
We consider the problem of using observational data to estimate the causal effects of linguistic properties. For example, does writing a complaint politely lead to a faster response time? How much will a positive product review increase sales? This paper addresses two technical challenges related to the problem before developing a practical method. First, we formalize the causal quantity of interest as the effect of a writer’s intent, and establish the assumptions necessary to identify this from observational data. Second, in practice, we only have access to noisy proxies for the linguistic properties of interest—e.g., predictions from classifiers and lexicons. We propose an estimator for this setting and prove that its bias is bounded when we perform an adjustment for the text. Based on these results, we introduce TextCause, an algorithm for estimating causal effects of linguistic properties. The method leverages (1) distant supervision to improve the quality of noisy proxies, and (2) a pre-trained language model (BERT) to adjust for the text. We show that the proposed method outperforms related approaches when estimating the effect of Amazon review sentiment on semi-simulated sales figures. Finally, we present an applied case study investigating the effects of complaint politeness on bureaucratic response times.