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ARS Home » Plains Area » Miles City, Montana » Livestock and Range Research Laboratory » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #362375

Research Project: Adaptive Rangeland Management of Livestock Grazing, Disturbance, and Climatic Variation

Location: Livestock and Range Research Laboratory

Title: Omitted variable bias in studies of plant interactions

Author
item Rinella, Matthew - Matt
item Strong, Dustin
item Vermeire, Lance

Submitted to: Ecology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 1/23/2020
Publication Date: 6/1/2020
Citation: Rinella, M.J., Strong, D.J., Vermeire, L.T. 2020. Omitted variable bias in studies of plant interactions. Ecology. 101(6):e03020. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.3020.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.3020

Interpretive Summary: 1. Estimating competitive and other relationships among plants is difficult but important. Common estimation methods involve modeling target plant variables (e.g. growth, survival) as functions of neighbor variables (e.g. density, biomass, cover) after measuring the variables in plots or neighborhoods of individual targets. It can be important to include or otherwise account for abiotic (e.g. disturbance, weather) variables in models, because these variables can vary appreciably across plots, plant neighborhoods and time. But deciding what variables need to be measured and included is difficult owing to ignorance about which variables affect which plants. Omitting variables that affect only neighbors is advised. Conversely, omitting variables that affect only targets increases uncertainty, and omitting variables that affect both neighbors and targets causes omitted variable bias. 2. Concerning the direction of bias, we show typical models will underestimate competition intensity whenever omitted variables positively or negatively affect both neighbors and targets, and because different plants respond similarly to nutrients and many other factors, we hypothesized omitted variables would usually cause underestimated competition. In example analyses, we illustrate how instrumental variables, variables that affect targets only by affecting neighbors, can be used to estimate and correct omitted variable bias with no knowledge of what the omitted variables even are. 3. With experimental data, omitted variables sometimes caused underestimated competition intensity, and with observational data, omitted variables caused a competitive relationship to seem mutualistic. 4. Synthesis: These results support our hypothesis that omitted variables tend to cause underestimated competition intensity, as do two recent observational studies where models tended to underestimate competition. Unfortunately, with observational data, valid instruments are rare, so instrumental variables analysis is not a general-purpose solution to the omitted variables problem. With experimental data, treatment assignments are often valid instruments, so instrumental variables analysis seems more generally useful.

Technical Abstract: 1. Estimating competitive and other relationships among plants is difficult but important. Common estimation methods involve modeling target plant variables (e.g. growth, survival) as functions of neighbor variables (e.g. density, biomass, cover) after measuring the variables in plots or neighborhoods of individual targets. It can be important to include or otherwise account for abiotic (e.g. disturbance, weather) variables in models, because these variables can vary appreciably across plots, plant neighborhoods and time. But deciding what variables need to be measured and included is difficult owing to ignorance about which variables affect which plants. Omitting variables that affect only neighbors is advised because including them risks masking neighbor effects. Conversely, omitting variables that affect only targets increases uncertainty, and omitting variables that affect both neighbors and targets causes omitted variable bias. 2. Concerning the direction of bias, we show typical models will underestimate competition intensity whenever omitted variables positively or negatively affect both neighbors and targets, and because different plants respond similarly to nutrients and many other factors, we hypothesized omitted variables would usually cause underestimated competition. In example analyses, we illustrate how instrumental variables, variables that affect targets only by affecting neighbors, can be used to estimate and correct omitted variable bias with no knowledge of what the omitted variables even are. 3. With experimental data, omitted variables sometimes caused underestimated competition intensity, and with observational data, omitted variables caused a competitive relationship to seem mutualistic. 4. Synthesis: These results support our hypothesis that omitted variables tend to cause underestimated competition intensity, as do two recent observational studies where models tended to underestimate competition. In addition to omitted variables, we show how measurement errors in neighbor variables can cause competition to seem weaker than it is. Unfortunately, with observational data, valid instruments are rare, so instrumental variables analysis is not a general-purpose solution to the omitted variables problem. With experimental data, treatment indicators are often valid instruments, so instrumental variables analysis seems more generally useful.