Maximum likelihood, profile likelihood, and penalized likelihood: A primer

Stephen R. Cole, Haitao Chu, Sander Greenland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations

Abstract

The method of maximum likelihood is widely used in epidemiology, yet many epidemiologists receive little or no education in the conceptual underpinnings of the approach. Here we provide a primer on maximum likelihood and some important extensions which have proven useful in epidemiologic research, and which reveal connections between maximum likelihood and Bayesian methods. For a given data set and probability model, maximum likelihood finds values of the model parameters that give the observed data the highest probability. As with all inferential statistical methods, maximum likelihood is based on an assumed model and cannot account for bias sources that are not controlled by the model or the study design. Maximum likelihood is nonetheless popular, because it is computationally straightforward and intuitive and because maximum likelihood estimators have desirable large-sample properties in the (largely fictitious) case in which the model has been correctly specified. Here, we work through an example to illustrate the mechanics of maximum likelihood estimation and indicate how improvements can be made easily with commercial software. We then describe recent extensions and generalizations which are better suited to observational health research and which should arguably replace standard maximum likelihood as the default method.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)252-260
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican journal of epidemiology
Volume179
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 15 2014

Keywords

  • epidemiologic methods
  • maximum likelihood
  • modeling
  • penalized estimation
  • regression
  • statistics

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