Suppose one observes a sample of independent and identically distributed observations from a particular data generating distribution. Suppose that one is concerned with estimation of a particular pathwise differentiable Euclidean parameter. A substitution estimator evaluating the parameter of a given likelihood based density estimator is typically too biased and might not even converge at the parametric rate: that is, the density estimator was targeted to be a good estimator of the density and might therefore result in a poor estimator of a particular smooth functional of the density. In this article we propose a one step (and, by iteration, k-th step) targeted maximum likelihood density estimator which involves 1) creating a hardest parametric submodel with parameter epsilon through the given density estimator with score equal to the efficient influence curve of the pathwise differentiable parameter at the density estimator, 2) estimating epsilon with the maximum likelihood estimator, and 3) defining a new density estimator as the corresponding update of the original density estimator. We show that iteration of this algorithm results in a targeted maximum likelihood density estimator which solves the efficient influence curve estimating equation and thereby yields a locally efficient estimator of the parameter of interest, under regularity conditions. In particular, we show that, if the parameter is linear and the model is convex, then the targeted maximum likelihood estimator is often achieved in the first step, and it results in a locally efficient estimator at an arbitrary (e.g., heavily misspecified) starting density.

We also show that the targeted maximum likelihood estimators are now in full agreement with the locally efficient estimating function methodology as presented in Robins and Rotnitzky (1992) and van der Laan and Robins (2003), creating, in particular, algebraic equivalence between the double robust locally efficient estimators using the targeted maximum likelihood estimators as an estimate of its nuisance parameters, and targeted maximum likelihood estimators. In addition, it is argued that the targeted MLE has various advantages relative to the current estimating function based approach. We proceed by providing data driven methodologies to select the initial density estimator for the targeted MLE, thereby providing data adaptive targeted maximum likelihood estimation methodology. We illustrate the method with various worked out examples.

KEYWORDS: causal effect, cross-validation, efficient influence curve, estimating function, locally efficient estimation, loss function, maximu