Gary King is the Weatherhead University Professor at Harvard University. He also serves as Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He and his research group develop and apply empirical methods in many areas of social science research. Full bio and CV

Research Areas

    • Evaluating Social Security Forecasts
      The accuracy of U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) demographic and financial forecasts is crucial for the solvency of its Trust Funds, government programs comprising greater than 50% of all federal government expenditures, industry decision making, and the evidence base of many scholarly articles. Forecasts are also essential for scoring policy proposals, put forward by both political parties. Because SSA makes public little replication information, and uses ad hoc, qualitative, and antiquated statistical forecasting methods, no one in or out of government has been able to produce fully independent alternative forecasts or policy scorings. Yet, no systematic evaluation of SSA forecasts has ever been published by SSA or anyone else. We show that SSA's forecasting errors were approximately unbiased until about 2000, but then began to grow quickly, with increasingly overconfident uncertainty intervals. Moreover, the errors all turn out to be in the same potentially dangerous direction, each making the Social Security Trust Funds look healthier than they actually are. We also discover the cause of these findings with evidence from a large number of interviews we conducted with participants at every level of the forecasting and policy processes. We show that SSA's forecasting procedures meet all the conditions the modern social-psychology and statistical literatures demonstrate make bias likely. When those conditions mixed with potent new political forces trying to change Social Security and influence the forecasts, SSA's actuaries hunkered down trying hard to insulate themselves from the intense political pressures. Unfortunately, this otherwise laudable resistance to undue influence, along with their ad hoc qualitative forecasting models, led them to also miss important changes in the input data such as retirees living longer lives, and drawing more benefits, than predicted by simple extrapolations. We explain that solving this problem involves using (a) removing human judgment where possible, by using formal statistical methods -- via the revolution in data science and big data; (b) instituting formal structural procedures when human judgment is required -- via the revolution in social psychological research; and (c) requiring transparency and data sharing to catch errors that slip through -- via the revolution in data sharing & replication.An article at Barron's about our work.
    • Incumbency Advantage
      Proof that previously used estimators of electoral incumbency advantage were biased, and a new unbiased estimator. Also, the first systematic demonstration that constituency service by legislators increases the incumbency advantage.
    • Information Control by Authoritarian Governments
      Reverse engineering Chinese information controls -- the most extensive effort to selectively control human expression in the history of the world. We show that this massive effort to slow the flow of information paradoxically also conveys a great deal about the intentions, goals, and actions of the leaders. We downloaded all Chinese social media posts before the government could read and censor them; wrote and posted comments randomly assigned to our categories on hundreds of websites across the country to see what would be censored; set up our own social media website in China; and discovered that the Chinese government fabricates and posts 450 million social media comments a year in the names of ordinary people and convinced those posting (and inadvertently even the government) to admit to their activities. We found that the goverment does not engage on controversial issues (they do not censor criticism or fabricate posts that argue with those who disagree with the government), but they respond on an emergency basis to stop collective action (with censorship, fabricating posts with giant bursts of cheerleading-type distractions, responding to citizen greviances, etc.). They don't care what you think of them or say about them; they only care what you can do.
    • Mexican Health Care Evaluation
      An evaluation of the Mexican Seguro Popular program (designed to extend health insurance and regular and preventive medical care, pharmaceuticals, and health facilities to 50 million uninsured Mexicans), one of the world's largest health policy reforms of the last two decades. Our evaluation features a new design for field experiments that is more robust to the political interventions and implementation errors that have ruined many similar previous efforts; new statistical methods that produce more reliable and efficient results using fewer resources, assumptions, and data; and an implementation of these methods in the largest randomized health policy experiment to date. (See the Harvard Gazette story on this project.)
    • Presidency Research; Voting Behavior
      Resolution of the paradox of why polls are so variable over time during presidential campaigns even though the vote outcome is easily predictable before it starts. Also, a resolution of a key controversy over absentee ballots during the 2000 presidential election; and the methodology of small-n research on executives.
    • Informatics and Data Sharing
      Replication Standards New standards, protocols, and software for citing, sharing, analyzing, archiving, preserving, distributing, cataloging, translating, disseminating, naming, verifying, and replicating scholarly research data and analyses. Also includes proposals to improve the norms of data sharing and replication in science.
    • International Conflict
      Methods for coding, analyzing, and forecasting international conflict and state failure. Evidence that the causes of conflict, theorized to be important but often found to be small or ephemeral, are indeed tiny for the vast majority of dyads, but are large, stable, and replicable wherever the ex ante probability of conflict is large.
    • Legislative Redistricting
      The definition of partisan symmetry as a standard for fairness in redistricting; methods and software for measuring partisan bias and electoral responsiveness; discussion of U.S. Supreme Court rulings about this work. Evidence that U.S. redistricting reduces bias and increases responsiveness, and that the electoral college is fair; applications to legislatures, primaries, and multiparty systems.
    • Mortality Studies
      Methods for forecasting mortality rates (overall or for time series data cross-classified by age, sex, country, and cause); estimating mortality rates in areas without vital registration; measuring inequality in risk of death; applications to US mortality, the future of the Social Security, armed conflict, heart failure, and human security.
    • Teaching and Administration
      Publications and other projects designed to improve teaching, learning, and university administration, as well as broader writings on the future of the social sciences.
    • Anchoring Vignettes (for interpersonal incomparability)
      Methods for interpersonal incomparability, when respondents (from different cultures, genders, countries, or ethnic groups) understand survey questions in different ways; for developing theoretical definitions of complicated concepts apparently definable only by example (i.e., "you know it when you see it").
    • Automated Text Analysis
      Automated and computer-assisted methods of extracting, organizing, understanding, conceptualizing, and consuming knowledge from massive quantities of unstructured text.
    • Causal Inference
      Methods for detecting and reducing model dependence (i.e., when minor model changes produce substantively different inferences) in inferring causal effects and other counterfactuals. Matching methods; "politically robust" and cluster-randomized experimental designs; causal bias decompositions.
    • Event Counts and Durations
      Statistical models to explain or predict how many events occur for each fixed time period, or the time between events. An application to cabinet dissolution in parliamentary democracies which united two previously warring scholarly literature. Other applications to international relations and U.S. Supreme Court appointments.
    • Ecological Inference
      Inferring individual behavior from group-level data: The first approach to incorporate both unit-level deterministic bounds and cross-unit statistical information, methods for 2x2 and larger tables, Bayesian model averaging, applications to elections, software.
    • Missing Data & Measurement Error
      Statistical methods to accommodate missing information in data sets due to scattered unit nonresponse, missing variables, or values or variables measured with error. Easy-to-use algorithms and software for multiple imputation and multiple overimputation for surveys, time series, and time series cross-sectional data. Applications to electoral, and other compositional, data.
    • Qualitative Research
      How the same unified theory of inference underlies quantitative and qualitative research alike; scientific inference when quantification is difficult or impossible; research design; empirical research in legal scholarship.
    • Rare Events
      How to save 99% of your data collection costs; bias corrections for logistic regression in estimating probabilities and causal effects in rare events data; estimating base probabilities or any quantity from case-control data; automated coding of events.
    • Survey Research
      How surveys work and a variety of methods to use with surveys. Surveys for estimating death rates, why election polls are so variable when the vote is so predictable, and health inequality.
    • Unifying Statistical Analysis
      Development of a unified approach to statistical modeling, inference, interpretation, presentation, analysis, and software; integrated with most of the other projects listed here.

Recent Papers

Deaths From Heart Failure: Using Coarsened Exact Matching to Correct Cause of Death Statistics

Deaths From Heart Failure: Using Coarsened Exact Matching to Correct Cause of Death Statistics
Gretchen Stevens, Gary King, and Kenji Shibuya. 2010. “Deaths From Heart Failure: Using Coarsened Exact Matching to Correct Cause of Death Statistics.” Population Health Metrics, 6, 8. Abstract

Background: Incomplete information on death certificates makes recorded cause of death data less useful for public health monitoring and planning. Certifying physicians sometimes list only the mode of death (and in particular, list heart failure) without indicating the underlying disease(s) that gave rise to the death. This can prevent valid epidemiologic comparisons across countries and over time. Methods and Results: We propose that coarsened exact matching be used to infer the underlying causes of death where only the mode of death is known; we focus on the case of heart failure in U.S., Mexican and Brazilian death records. Redistribution algorithms derived using this method assign the largest proportion of heart failure deaths to ischemic heart disease in all three countries (53%, 26% and 22%), with larger proportions assigned to hypertensive heart disease and diabetes in Mexico and Brazil (16% and 23% vs. 7% for hypertensive heart disease and 13% and 9% vs. 6% for diabetes). Reassigning these heart failure deaths increases US ischemic heart disease mortality rates by 6%.Conclusions: The frequency with which physicians list heart failure in the causal chain for various underlying causes of death allows for inference about how physicians use heart failure on the death certificate in different settings. This easy-to-use method has the potential to reduce bias and increase comparability in cause-of-death data, thereby improving the public health utility of death records. Key Words: vital statistics, heart failure, population health, mortality, epidemiology

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Public Policy for the Poor? A Randomised Assessment of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Programme

Public Policy for the Poor? A Randomised Assessment of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Programme
Gary King, Emmanuela Gakidou, Kosuke Imai, Jason Lakin, Ryan T Moore, Clayton Nall, Nirmala Ravishankar, Manett Vargas, Martha María Téllez-Rojo, Juan Eugenio Hernández Ávila, Mauricio Hernández Ávila, and Héctor Hernández Llamas. 2009. “Public Policy for the Poor? A Randomised Assessment of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Programme.” The Lancet, 373: 1447-1454. Abstract

Background: We assessed aspects of Seguro Popular, a programme aimed to deliver health insurance, regular and preventive medical care, medicines, and health facilities to 50 million uninsured Mexicans. Methods: We randomly assigned treatment within 74 matched pairs of health clusters–-i.e., health facility catchment areas–-representing 118,569 households in seven Mexican states, and measured outcomes in a 2005 baseline survey (August 2005, to September 2005) and follow-up survey 10 months later (July 2006, to August 2006) in 50 pairs (n=32 515). The treatment consisted of encouragement to enrol in a health-insurance programme and upgraded medical facilities. Participant states also received funds to improve health facilities and to provide medications for services in treated clusters. We estimated intention to treat and complier average causal effects non-parametrically. Findings: Intention-to-treat estimates indicated a 23% reduction from baseline in catastrophic expenditures (1·9% points and 95% CI 0·14-3·66). The effect in poor households was 3·0% points (0·46-5·54) and in experimental compliers was 6·5% points (1·65-11·28), 30% and 59% reductions, respectively. The intention-to-treat effect on health spending in poor households was 426 pesos (39-812), and the complier average causal effect was 915 pesos (147-1684). Contrary to expectations and previous observational research, we found no effects on medication spending, health outcomes, or utilisation. Interpretation: Programme resources reached the poor. However, the programme did not show some other effects, possibly due to the short duration of treatment (10 months). Although Seguro Popular seems to be successful at this early stage, further experiments and follow-up studies, with longer assessment periods, are needed to ascertain the long-term effects of the programme.

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Empirical versus Theoretical Claims about Extreme Counterfactuals: A Response

Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2009. “Empirical versus Theoretical Claims about Extreme Counterfactuals: A Response.” Political Analysis, 17: 107-112. Abstract

In response to the data-based measures of model dependence proposed in King and Zeng (2006), Sambanis and Michaelides (2008) propose alternative measures that rely upon assumptions untestable in observational data. If these assumptions are correct, then their measures are appropriate and ours, based solely on the empirical data, may be too conservative. If instead and as is usually the case, the researcher is not certain of the precise functional form of the data generating process, the distribution from which the data are drawn, and the applicability of these modeling assumptions to new counterfactuals, then the data-based measures proposed in King and Zeng (2006) are much preferred. After all, the point of model dependence checks is to verify empirically, rather than to stipulate by assumption, the effects of modeling assumptions on counterfactual inferences.

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CEM: Coarsened Exact Matching in Stata

CEM: Coarsened Exact Matching in Stata
Matthew Blackwell, Stefano Iacus, Gary King, and Giuseppe Porro. 2009. “CEM: Coarsened Exact Matching in Stata.” The Stata Journal, 9: 524–546. Abstract
In this article, we introduce a Stata implementation of coarsened exact matching, a new method for improving the estimation of causal effects by reducing imbalance in covariates between treated and control groups. Coarsened exact matching is faster, is easier to use and understand, requires fewer assumptions, is more easily automated, and possesses more attractive statistical properties for many applications than do existing matching methods. In coarsened exact matching, users temporarily coarsen their data, exact match on these coarsened data, and then run their analysis on the uncoarsened, matched data. Coarsened exact matching bounds the degree of model dependence and causal effect estimation error by ex ante user choice, is monotonic imbalance bounding (so that reducing the maximum imbalance on one variable has no effect on others), does not require a separate procedure to restrict data to common support, meets the congruence principle, is approximately invariant to measurement error, balances all nonlinearities and interactions in sample (i.e., not merely in expectation), and works with multiply imputed datasets. Other matching methods inherit many of the coarsened exact matching method’s properties when applied to further match data preprocessed by coarsened exact matching. The cem command implements the coarsened exact matching algorithm in Stata.
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Preserving Quantitative Research-Elicited Data for Longitudinal Analysis. New Developments in Archiving Survey Data in the U.S.

Preserving Quantitative Research-Elicited Data for Longitudinal Analysis.  New Developments in Archiving Survey Data in the U.S.
Mark Abrahamson, Kenneth A Bollen, Myron P Gutmann, Gary King, and Amy Pienta. 2009. “Preserving Quantitative Research-Elicited Data for Longitudinal Analysis. New Developments in Archiving Survey Data in the U.S..” Historical Social Research, 3, 34: 51-59. Abstract

Social science data collected in the United States, both historically and at present, have often not been placed in any public archive -- even when the data collection was supported by government grants. The availability of the data for future use is, therefore, in jeopardy. Enforcing archiving norms may be the only way to increase data preservation and availability in the future.

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Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China, at Ohio State University, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Thursday, October 22, 2015:

Chinese government censorship of social media constitutes the largest selective suppression of human communication in recorded history. In three ways, we show, paradoxically, that this large system also leaves large footprints that reveal a great deal about itself and the intentions of the government. First is an observational study where we download all social media posts before the Chinese government can read and censor those they deem objectionable, and then detect from a network of computers all over the world which are censored.

Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used For Matching, at Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Thursday, October 15, 2015:

This talk summarizes a paper -- Gary King and Richard Nielsen. 2015. “Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used for Matching” -- with this abstract:  Researchers use propensity score matching (PSM) as a data preprocessing step to selectively prune units prior to applying a model to estimate a causal effect.

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