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

Multivariate Matching Methods That are Monotonic Imbalance Bounding

Multivariate Matching Methods That are Monotonic Imbalance Bounding
Stefano M Iacus, Gary King, and Giuseppe Porro. 2011. “Multivariate Matching Methods That are Monotonic Imbalance Bounding.” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 493, 106: 345-361. Abstract

We introduce a new "Monotonic Imbalance Bounding" (MIB) class of matching methods for causal inference with a surprisingly large number of attractive statistical properties. MIB generalizes and extends in several new directions the only existing class, "Equal Percent Bias Reducing" (EPBR), which is designed to satisfy weaker properties and only in expectation. We also offer strategies to obtain specific members of the MIB class, and analyze in more detail a member of this class, called Coarsened Exact Matching, whose properties we analyze from this new perspective. We offer a variety of analytical results and numerical simulations that demonstrate how members of the MIB class can dramatically improve inferences relative to EPBR-based matching methods.

Read more

Anchors: Software for Anchoring Vignettes Data

Anchors: Software for Anchoring Vignettes Data
Jonathan Wand, Gary King, and Olivia Lau. 2011. “Anchors: Software for Anchoring Vignettes Data.” Journal of Statistical Software, 3, 42: 1--25. Publisher's Version Abstract

When respondents use the ordinal response categories of standard survey questions in different ways, the validity of analyses based on the resulting data can be biased. Anchoring vignettes is a survey design technique intended to correct for some of these problems. The anchors package in R includes methods for evaluating and choosing anchoring vignettes, and for analyzing the resulting data.

Read more

Amelia II: A Program for Missing Data

Amelia II: A Program for Missing Data
James Honaker, Gary King, and Matthew Blackwell. 2011. “Amelia II: A Program for Missing Data.” Journal of Statistical Software, 7, 45: 1-47. Abstract

Amelia II is a complete R package for multiple imputation of missing data. The package implements a new expectation-maximization with bootstrapping algorithm that works faster, with larger numbers of variables, and is far easier to use, than various Markov chain Monte Carlo approaches, but gives essentially the same answers. The program also improves imputation models by allowing researchers to put Bayesian priors on individual cell values, thereby including a great deal of potentially valuable and extensive information. It also includes features to accurately impute cross-sectional datasets, individual time series, or sets of time series for different cross-sections. A full set of graphical diagnostics are also available. The program is easy to use, and the simplicity of the algorithm makes it far more robust; both a simple command line and extensive graphical user interface are included.

Amelia II software web site

Read more

Estimating Incidence Curves of Several Infections Using Symptom Surveillance Data

Estimating Incidence Curves of Several Infections Using Symptom Surveillance Data
Edward Goldstein, Benjamin J Cowling, Allison E Aiello, Saki Takahashi, Gary King, Ying Lu, and Marc Lipsitch. 2011. “Estimating Incidence Curves of Several Infections Using Symptom Surveillance Data.” PLoS ONE, 8, 6: e23380. Abstract

We introduce a method for estimating incidence curves of several co-circulating infectious pathogens, where each infection has its own probabilities of particular symptom profiles. Our deconvolution method utilizes weekly surveillance data on symptoms from a defined population as well as additional data on symptoms from a sample of virologically confirmed infectious episodes. We illustrate this method by numerical simulations and by using data from a survey conducted on the University of Michigan campus. Last, we describe the data needs to make such estimates accurate.

Link to PLoS version

Read more

General Purpose Computer-Assisted Clustering and Conceptualization

General Purpose Computer-Assisted Clustering and Conceptualization
Justin Grimmer and Gary King. 2011. “General Purpose Computer-Assisted Clustering and Conceptualization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Publisher's Version Abstract

We develop a computer-assisted method for the discovery of insightful conceptualizations, in the form of clusterings (i.e., partitions) of input objects. Each of the numerous fully automated methods of cluster analysis proposed in statistics, computer science, and biology optimize a different objective function. Almost all are well defined, but how to determine before the fact which one, if any, will partition a given set of objects in an "insightful" or "useful" way for a given user is unknown and difficult, if not logically impossible. We develop a metric space of partitions from all existing cluster analysis methods applied to a given data set (along with millions of other solutions we add based on combinations of existing clusterings), and enable a user to explore and interact with it, and quickly reveal or prompt useful or insightful conceptualizations. In addition, although uncommon in unsupervised learning problems, we offer and implement evaluation designs that make our computer-assisted approach vulnerable to being proven suboptimal in specific data types. We demonstrate that our approach facilitates more efficient and insightful discovery of useful information than either expert human coders or many existing fully automated methods.

Read more

Comparative Effectiveness of Matching Methods for Causal Inference

Comparative Effectiveness of Matching Methods for Causal Inference
Gary King, Richard Nielsen, Carter Coberley, James E Pope, and Aaron Wells. 2011. “Comparative Effectiveness of Matching Methods for Causal Inference”. Abstract

Matching is an increasingly popular method of causal inference in observational data, but following methodological best practices has proven difficult for applied researchers. We address this problem by providing a simple graphical approach for choosing among the numerous possible matching solutions generated by three methods: the venerable ``Mahalanobis Distance Matching'' (MDM), the commonly used ``Propensity Score Matching'' (PSM), and a newer approach called ``Coarsened Exact Matching'' (CEM). In the process of using our approach, we also discover that PSM often approximates random matching, both in many real applications and in data simulated by the processes that fit PSM theory. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, random matching is not benign: it (and thus PSM) can often degrade inferences relative to not matching at all. We find that MDM and CEM do not have this problem, and in practice CEM usually outperforms the other two approaches. However, with our comparative graphical approach and easy-to-follow procedures, focus can be on choosing a matching solution for a particular application, which is what may improve inferences, rather than the particular method used to generate it.

Read more

MatchIt: Nonparametric Preprocessing for Parametric Causal Inference

MatchIt: Nonparametric Preprocessing for Parametric Causal Inference
Daniel E Ho, Kosuke Imai, Gary King, and Elizabeth A Stuart. 2011. “MatchIt: Nonparametric Preprocessing for Parametric Causal Inference.” Journal of Statistical Software, 8, 42. Publisher's Version Abstract
MatchIt implements the suggestions of Ho, Imai, King, and Stuart (2007) for improving parametric statistical models by preprocessing data with nonparametric matching methods. MatchIt implements a wide range of sophisticated matching methods, making it possible to greatly reduce the dependence of causal inferences on hard-to-justify, but commonly made, statistical modeling assumptions. The software also easily ts into existing research practices since, after preprocessing data with MatchIt, researchers can use whatever parametric model they would have used without MatchIt, but produce inferences with substantially more robustness and less sensitivity to modeling assumptions. MatchIt is an R program, and also works seamlessly with Zelig.
Read more
All writings

Presentations

Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used For Matching, at Yale University, MacMillan-CSAP Workshop on Quantitative Research Methods, Thursday, March 10, 2016:

This talk summarizes a paper -- Gary King and Richard Nielsen. 2016. “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.

Explaining Systematic Bias and Nontransparency in US Social Security Administration Forecasts, at Hellenic American Bankers Association, NYC, Thursday, January 28, 2016:

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 or anyone else.

All presentations

Gary King on Twitter