Targeted estimation of nuisance parameters to obtain valid statistical inference

Mark J van der Laan
International Journal of Biostatistics 2014, 10 (1): 29-57
In order to obtain concrete results, we focus on estimation of the treatment specific mean, controlling for all measured baseline covariates, based on observing independent and identically distributed copies of a random variable consisting of baseline covariates, a subsequently assigned binary treatment, and a final outcome. The statistical model only assumes possible restrictions on the conditional distribution of treatment, given the covariates, the so-called propensity score. Estimators of the treatment specific mean involve estimation of the propensity score and/or estimation of the conditional mean of the outcome, given the treatment and covariates. In order to make these estimators asymptotically unbiased at any data distribution in the statistical model, it is essential to use data-adaptive estimators of these nuisance parameters such as ensemble learning, and specifically super-learning. Because such estimators involve optimal trade-off of bias and variance w.r.t. the infinite dimensional nuisance parameter itself, they result in a sub-optimal bias/variance trade-off for the resulting real-valued estimator of the estimand. We demonstrate that additional targeting of the estimators of these nuisance parameters guarantees that this bias for the estimand is second order and thereby allows us to prove theorems that establish asymptotic linearity of the estimator of the treatment specific mean under regularity conditions. These insights result in novel targeted minimum loss-based estimators (TMLEs) that use ensemble learning with additional targeted bias reduction to construct estimators of the nuisance parameters. In particular, we construct collaborative TMLEs (C-TMLEs) with known influence curve allowing for statistical inference, even though these C-TMLEs involve variable selection for the propensity score based on a criterion that measures how effective the resulting fit of the propensity score is in removing bias for the estimand. As a particular special case, we also demonstrate the required targeting of the propensity score for the inverse probability of treatment weighted estimator using super-learning to fit the propensity score.

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