Shiny Contest Submission: Educational Note: Paradoxical collider effect in the analysis of non-communicable disease epidemiological data: a reproducible illustration and web application

Classical epidemiology has focused on the control of confounding, but it is only recently that epidemiologists have started to focus on the bias produced by colliders. A collider for a certain pair of variables (e.g. an outcome Y and an exposure A) is a third variable (C) that is caused by both. In a directed acyclic graph (DAG), a collider is the variable in the middle of an inverted fork (i.e. the variable C in A → C ← Y). Controlling for, or conditioning an analysis on a collider (i.e. through stratification or regression) can introduce a spurious association between its causes. This potentially explains many paradoxical findings in the medical literature, where established risk factors for a particular outcome appear protective. We use an example from non-communicable disease epidemiology to contextualize and explain the effect of conditioning on a collider. We generate a dataset with 1000 observations and run Monte-Carlo simulations to estimate the effect of 24-h dietary sodium intake on systolic blood pressure, controlling for age, which acts as a confounder, and 24-h urinary protein excretion, which acts as a collider. We illustrate how adding a collider to a regression model introduces bias. Thus, to prevent paradoxical associations, epidemiologists estimating causal effects should be wary of conditioning on colliders. We provide R code in easy-to-read boxes throughout the manuscript, and a GitHub repository for the reader to reproduce our example. We also provide an educational web application allowing real-time interaction to visualize the paradoxical effect of conditioning on a collider

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