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

    • 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, Differential Privacy
      Statistical methods to accommodate missing information in data sets due to survey nonresponse, missing variables, or variables measured with error or with error added to protect privacy. Applications and software for analyzing electoral, compositional, survey, time series, and time series cross-sectional 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.
    • 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.
    • Chinese Censorship
      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, as well as standard errors that are as much as 600% smaller; 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.

Recent Papers

If a Statistical Model Predicts That Common Events Should Occur Only Once in 10,000 Elections, Maybe it’s the Wrong Model

If a Statistical Model Predicts That Common Events Should Occur Only Once in 10,000 Elections, Maybe it’s the Wrong Model
Danny Ebanks, Jonathan N. Katz, and Gary King. Working Paper. “If a Statistical Model Predicts That Common Events Should Occur Only Once in 10,000 Elections, Maybe it’s the Wrong Model”.Abstract
Election surprises are hardly surprising. Unexpected challengers, deaths, retirements, scandals, campaign strategies, real world events, and heresthetical maneuvers all conspire to confuse the best models. Quantitative researchers usually model district-level elections with linear functions of measured covariates, to account for systematic variation, and normal error terms, to account for surprises. However, although these models  work well in many situations they can be embarrassingly overconfident: Events that commonly used models indicate should occur once in 10,000 elections occur almost every year, and even those which the model indicates should occur once in a trillion-trillion elections are sometimes observed.  We develop a new general purpose statistical model of district-level legislative elections, validated with extensive out-of-sample (and distribution-free) tests. As an illustration, we use this model to generate the first ever correctly calibrated probabilities of incumbent losses in US Congressional elections, one of the most important quantities for evaluating the functioning of a representative democracy.  Analyses lead to an optimistic conclusion about American democracy: Even when marginals vanish, incumbency advantage grows, and dramatic changes occur, the risk of an incumbent losing an election has been high and essentially constant from the 1950s until the present day.
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Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data

Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data
Georgina Evans, Gary King, Margaret Schwenzfeier, and Abhradeep Thakurta. Forthcoming. “Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data.” American Political Science Review.Abstract
Unprecedented quantities of data that could help social scientists understand and ameliorate the challenges of human society are presently locked away inside companies, governments, and other organizations, in part because of privacy concerns. We address this problem with a general-purpose data access and analysis system with mathematical guarantees of privacy for research subjects, and statistical validity guarantees for researchers seeking social science insights. We build on the standard of ``differential privacy,'' correct for biases induced by the privacy-preserving procedures, provide a proper accounting of uncertainty, and impose minimal constraints on the choice of statistical methods and quantities estimated. We also replicate two recent published articles and show how we can obtain approximately the same substantive results while simultaneously protecting the privacy. Our approach is simple to use and computationally efficient; we also offer open source software that implements all our methods.
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Differentially Private Survey Research

Differentially Private Survey Research
Georgina Evans, Gary King, Adam D. Smith, and Abhradeep Thakurta. Forthcoming. “Differentially Private Survey Research.” American Journal of Political Science.Abstract
Survey researchers have long sought to protect the privacy of their respondents via de-identification (removing names and other directly identifying information) before sharing data. Although these procedures can help, recent research demonstrates that they fail to protect respondents from intentional re-identification attacks, a problem that threatens to undermine vast survey enterprises in academia, government, and industry. This is especially a problem in political science because political beliefs are not merely the subject of our scholarship; they represent some of the most important information respondents want to keep private. We confirm the problem in practice by re-identifying individuals from a survey about a controversial referendum declaring life beginning at conception. We build on the concept of "differential privacy" to offer new data sharing procedures with mathematical guarantees for protecting respondent privacy and statistical validity guarantees for social scientists analyzing differentially private data.  The cost of these new procedures is larger standard errors, which can be overcome with somewhat larger sample sizes.
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Rejoinder: Concluding Remarks on Scholarly Communications

Jonathan Katz, Gary King, and Elizabeth Rosenblatt. Forthcoming. “Rejoinder: Concluding Remarks on Scholarly Communications.” Political Analysis.Abstract

We are grateful to DeFord et al. for the continued attention to our work and the crucial issues of fair representation in democratic electoral systems. Our response (Katz, King, and Rosenblatt, forthcoming) was designed to help readers avoid being misled by mistaken claims in DeFord et al. (forthcoming-a), and does not address other literature or uses of our prior work. As it happens, none of our corrections were addressed (or contradicted) in the most recent submission (DeFord et al., forthcoming-b).

We also offer a recommendation regarding DeFord et al.’s (forthcoming-b) concern with how expert witnesses, consultants, and commentators should present academic scholarship to academic novices, such as judges, public officials, the media, and the general public. In these public service roles, scholars attempt to translate academic understanding of sophisticated scholarly literatures, technical methodologies, and complex theories for those without sufficient background in social science or statistics.
 

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Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, New Edition

Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, New Edition
Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 2021. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, New Edition. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Publisher's VersionAbstract
"The classic work on qualitative methods in political science"

Designing Social Inquiry presents a unified approach to qualitative and quantitative research in political science, showing how the same logic of inference underlies both. This stimulating book discusses issues related to framing research questions, measuring the accuracy of data and the uncertainty of empirical inferences, discovering causal effects, and getting the most out of qualitative research. It addresses topics such as interpretation and inference, comparative case studies, constructing causal theories, dependent and explanatory variables, the limits of random selection, selection bias, and errors in measurement. The book only uses mathematical notation to clarify concepts, and assumes no prior knowledge of mathematics or statistics.

Featuring a new preface by Robert O. Keohane and Gary King, this edition makes an influential work available to new generations of qualitative researchers in the social sciences.
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The Essential Role of Statistical Inference in Evaluating Electoral Systems: A Response to DeFord et al.

The Essential Role of Statistical Inference in Evaluating Electoral Systems: A Response to DeFord et al.
Jonathan Katz, Gary King, and Elizabeth Rosenblatt. Forthcoming. “The Essential Role of Statistical Inference in Evaluating Electoral Systems: A Response to DeFord et al.” Political Analysis.Abstract
Katz, King, and Rosenblatt (2020) introduces a theoretical framework for understanding redistricting and electoral systems, built on basic statistical and social science principles of inference. DeFord et al. (Forthcoming, 2021) instead focuses solely on descriptive measures, which lead to the problems identified in our arti- cle. In this paper, we illustrate the essential role of these basic principles and then offer statistical, mathematical, and substantive corrections required to apply DeFord et al.’s calculations to social science questions of interest, while also showing how to easily resolve all claimed paradoxes and problems. We are grateful to the authors for their interest in our work and for this opportunity to clarify these principles and our theoretical framework.
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Presentations

Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data (Princeton University), at Quantitative Social Science Colloquium, Princeton University, Friday, October 7, 2022:

Venerable procedures for privacy protection and data sharing within academia, companies, and governments, and between sectors, have been proven to be completely inadequate (e.g., respondents in de-identified surveys can usually be re-identified). At the same time, unprecedented quantities of data that could help social scientists understand and ameliorate the challenges of human society are presently locked away inside companies, governments, and other organizations, in part because of worries about privacy violations. We address these problems with a general-...

Read more about Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data (Princeton University)
Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data (University of Wisconsin), at Models, Experiments, and Data workshop (MEAD) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wednesday, October 5, 2022:

Venerable procedures for privacy protection and data sharing within academia, companies, and governments, and between sectors, have been proven to be completely inadequate (e.g., respondents in de-identified surveys can usually be re-identified). At the same time, unprecedented quantities of data that could help social scientists understand and ameliorate the challenges of human society are presently locked away inside companies, governments, and other organizations, in part because of worries about privacy violations. We address these problems with a general-...

Read more about Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data (University of Wisconsin)
Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data (Deloitte), at Deloitte, Thursday, July 14, 2022:

Venerable procedures used for privacy protection in sharing data within individual companies and governments, within academia, and between sectors have recently been proven massively inadequate (e.g., respondents in de-identified surveys can usually be re-identified). Furthermore, the benefits of getting our data sharing act together go far beyond the university, since unprecedented quantities of data that could help social scientists understand and ameliorate the challenges of human society are presently locked away inside companies, governments, and other organizations,...

Read more about Statistically Valid Inferences from Privacy Protected Data (Deloitte)
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Books

Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, New Edition

Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, New Edition
Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 2021. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, New Edition. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Publisher's VersionAbstract
"The classic work on qualitative methods in political science"

Designing Social Inquiry presents a unified approach to qualitative and quantitative research in political science, showing how the same logic of inference underlies both. This stimulating book discusses issues related to framing research questions, measuring the accuracy of data and the uncertainty of empirical inferences, discovering causal effects, and getting the most out of qualitative research. It addresses topics such as interpretation and inference, comparative case studies, constructing causal theories, dependent and explanatory variables, the limits of random selection, selection bias, and errors in measurement. The book only uses mathematical notation to clarify concepts, and assumes no prior knowledge of mathematics or statistics.

Featuring a new preface by Robert O. Keohane and Gary King, this edition makes an influential work available to new generations of qualitative researchers in the social sciences.
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Demographic Forecasting

Demographic Forecasting
Federico Girosi and Gary King. 2008. Demographic Forecasting. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Abstract

We introduce a new framework for forecasting age-sex-country-cause-specific mortality rates that incorporates considerably more information, and thus has the potential to forecast much better, than any existing approach. Mortality forecasts are used in a wide variety of academic fields, and for global and national health policy making, medical and pharmaceutical research, and social security and retirement planning.

As it turns out, the tools we developed in pursuit of this goal also have broader statistical implications, in addition to their use for forecasting mortality or other variables with similar statistical properties. First, our methods make it possible to include different explanatory variables in a time series regression for each cross-section, while still borrowing strength from one regression to improve the estimation of all. Second, we show that many existing Bayesian (hierarchical and spatial) models with explanatory variables use prior densities that incorrectly formalize prior knowledge. Many demographers and public health researchers have fortuitously avoided this problem so prevalent in other fields by using prior knowledge only as an ex post check on empirical results, but this approach excludes considerable information from their models. We show how to incorporate this demographic knowledge into a model in a statistically appropriate way. Finally, we develop a set of tools useful for developing models with Bayesian priors in the presence of partial prior ignorance. This approach also provides many of the attractive features claimed by the empirical Bayes approach, but fully within the standard Bayesian theory of inference.

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Ecological Inference: New Methodological Strategies

Ecological Inference: New Methodological Strategies
Gary King, Ori Rosen, Martin Tanner, Gary King, Ori Rosen, and Martin A Tanner. 2004. Ecological Inference: New Methodological Strategies. New York: Cambridge University Press.Abstract
Ecological Inference: New Methodological Strategies brings together a diverse group of scholars to survey the latest strategies for solving ecological inference problems in various fields. The last half decade has witnessed an explosion of research in ecological inference – the attempt to infer individual behavior from aggregate data. The uncertainties and the information lost in aggregation make ecological inference one of the most difficult areas of statistical inference, but such inferences are required in many academic fields, as well as by legislatures and the courts in redistricting, by businesses in marketing research, and by governments in policy analysis.
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An Interview with Gary

Gary King on Twitter