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

Death by Survey: Estimating Adult Mortality without Selection Bias from Sibling Survival Data

Death by Survey: Estimating Adult Mortality without Selection Bias from Sibling Survival Data
Emmanuela Gakidou and Gary King. 2006. “Death by Survey: Estimating Adult Mortality without Selection Bias from Sibling Survival Data.” Demography, 43: 569–585. Abstract
The widely used methods for estimating adult mortality rates from sample survey responses about the survival of siblings, parents, spouses, and others depend crucially on an assumption that we demonstrate does not hold in real data. We show that when this assumption is violated – so that the mortality rate varies with sibship size – mortality estimates can be massively biased. By using insights from work on the statistical analysis of selection bias, survey weighting, and extrapolation problems, we propose a new and relatively simple method of recovering the mortality rate with both greatly reduced potential for bias and increased clarity about the source of necessary assumptions.
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The Dangers of Extreme Counterfactuals

The Dangers of Extreme Counterfactuals
Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2006. “The Dangers of Extreme Counterfactuals.” Political Analysis, 14: 131–159. Abstract
We address the problem that occurs when inferences about counterfactuals – predictions, "what if" questions, and causal effects – are attempted far from the available data. The danger of these extreme counterfactuals is that substantive conclusions drawn from statistical models that fit the data well turn out to be based largely on speculation hidden in convenient modeling assumptions that few would be willing to defend. Yet existing statistical strategies provide few reliable means of identifying extreme counterfactuals. We offer a proof that inferences farther from the data are more model-dependent, and then develop easy-to-apply methods to evaluate how model-dependent our answers would be to specified counterfactuals. These methods require neither sensitivity testing over specified classes of models nor evaluating any specific modeling assumptions. If an analysis fails the simple tests we offer, then we know that substantive results are sensitive to at least some modeling choices that are not based on empirical evidence.
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The Effect of War on the Supreme Court

The Effect of War on the Supreme Court
Lee Epstein, Daniel E. Ho, Gary King, and Jeffrey A. Segal. 2006. “The Effect of War on the Supreme Court.” In Principles and Practice in American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Samuel Kernell and Steven S. Smith, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press. Abstract

Does the U.S. Supreme Court curtail rights and liberties when the nation’s security is under threat? In hundreds of articles and books, and with renewed fervor since September 11, 2001, members of the legal community have warred over this question. Yet, not a single large-scale, quantitative study exists on the subject. Using the best data available on the causes and outcomes of every civil rights and liberties case decided by the Supreme Court over the past six decades and employing methods chosen and tuned especially for this problem, our analyses demonstrate that when crises threaten the nation’s security, the justices are substantially more likely to curtail rights and liberties than when peace prevails. Yet paradoxically, and in contradiction to virtually every theory of crisis jurisprudence, war appears to affect only cases that are unrelated to the war. For these cases, the effect of war and other international crises is so substantial, persistent, and consistent that it may surprise even those commentators who long have argued that the Court rallies around the flag in times of crisis. On the other hand, we find no evidence that cases most directly related to the war are affected. We attempt to explain this seemingly paradoxical evidence with one unifying conjecture: Instead of balancing rights and security in high stakes cases directly related to the war, the Justices retreat to ensuring the institutional checks of the democratic branches. Since rights-oriented and process-oriented dimensions seem to operate in different domains and at different times, and often suggest different outcomes, the predictive factors that work for cases unrelated to the war fail for cases related to the war. If this conjecture is correct, federal judges should consider giving less weight to legal principles outside of wartime but established during wartime, and attorneys should see it as their responsibility to distinguish cases along these lines.

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The Supreme Court During Crisis: How War Affects only Non-War Cases

The Supreme Court During Crisis: How War Affects only Non-War Cases
Lee Epstein, Daniel E Ho, Gary King, and Jeffrey A Segal. 2005. “The Supreme Court During Crisis: How War Affects only Non-War Cases.” New York University Law Review, 80: 1–116. Abstract
Does the U.S. Supreme Court curtail rights and liberties when the nation’s security is under threat? In hundreds of articles and books, and with renewed fervor since September 11, 2001, members of the legal community have warred over this question. Yet, not a single large-scale, quantitative study exists on the subject. Using the best data available on the causes and outcomes of every civil rights and liberties case decided by the Supreme Court over the past six decades and employing methods chosen and tuned especially for this problem, our analyses demonstrate that when crises threaten the nation’s security, the justices are substantially more likely to curtail rights and liberties than when peace prevails. Yet paradoxically, and in contradiction to virtually every theory of crisis jurisprudence, war appears to affect only cases that are unrelated to the war. For these cases, the effect of war and other international crises is so substantial, persistent, and consistent that it may surprise even those commentators who long have argued that the Court rallies around the flag in times of crisis. On the other hand, we find no evidence that cases most directly related to the war are affected. We attempt to explain this seemingly paradoxical evidence with one unifying conjecture: Instead of balancing rights and security in high stakes cases directly related to the war, the Justices retreat to ensuring the institutional checks of the democratic branches. Since rights-oriented and process-oriented dimensions seem to operate in different domains and at different times, and often suggest different outcomes, the predictive factors that work for cases unrelated to the war fail for cases related to the war. If this conjecture is correct, federal judges should consider giving less weight to legal principles outside of wartime but established during wartime, and attorneys should see it as their responsibility to distinguish cases along these lines.
Read more

WhatIf: Software for Evaluating Counterfactuals

Heather Stoll, Gary King, and Langchee Zeng. 2005. “WhatIf: Software for Evaluating Counterfactuals.” Journal of Statistical Software, 4, 15: 1--18. Publisher's version Abstract

This article describes WhatIf: Software for Evaluating Counterfactuals, an R package that implements the methods for evaluating counterfactuals introduced in King and Zeng (2006a) and King and Zeng (2006b). It offers easy-to-use techniques for assessing a counterfactual’s model dependence without having to conduct sensitivity testing over specified classes of models. These same methods can be used to approximate the common support of the treatment and control groups in causal inference.

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Did Illegal Overseas Absentee Ballots Decide the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election?

Did Illegal Overseas Absentee Ballots Decide the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election?
Kosuke Imai and Gary King. 2004. “Did Illegal Overseas Absentee Ballots Decide the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election?.” Perspectives on Politics, 2: 537–549. Abstract

Although not widely known until much later, Al Gore received 202 more votes than George W. Bush on election day in Florida. George W. Bush is president because he overcame his election day deficit with overseas absentee ballots that arrived and were counted after election day. In the final official tally, Bush received 537 more votes than Gore. These numbers are taken from the official results released by the Florida Secretary of State's office and so do not reflect overvotes, undervotes, unsuccessful litigation, butterfly ballot problems, recounts that might have been allowed but were not, or any other hypothetical divergence between voter preferences and counted votes. After the election, the New York Times conducted a six month long investigation and found that 680 of the overseas absentee ballots were illegally counted, and no partisan, pundit, or academic has publicly disagreed with their assessment. In this paper, we describe the statistical procedures we developed and implemented for the Times to ascertain whether disqualifying these 680 ballots would have changed the outcome of the election. The methods involve adding formal Bayesian model averaging procedures to King's (1997) ecological inference model. Formal Bayesian model averaging has not been used in political science but is especially useful when substantive conclusions depend heavily on apparently minor but indefensible model choices, when model generalization is not feasible, and when potential critics are more partisan than academic. We show how we derived the results for the Times so that other scholars can use these methods to make ecological inferences for other purposes. We also present a variety of new empirical results that delineate the precise conditions under which Al Gore would have been elected president, and offer new evidence of the striking effectiveness of the Republican effort to convince local election officials to count invalid ballots in Bush counties and not count them in Gore counties.

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Presentations

Matching Methods for Causal Inference and 21 Other Topics, at Summer Institute in Computational Social Science, Princeton University, Tuesday, June 20, 2017:
This presentation discusses methods of matching for causal inference that are simpler, more powerful, and easier to understand. It shows that the most commonly used existing method, propensity score matching, should almost never be used. Easy-to-use software is available to implement all methods discussed. The presentation is followed by a class discussion about several of 21 possible research subjects. For more information, see GaryKing.org
Simplifying Matching Methods for Causal Inference, at Abt Associates, Cambridge MA, Thursday, June 1, 2017:
In this talk, Gary King introduces methods of matching for causal inference that are simpler, more powerful, and easier to understand than prior approaches. He also shows that the most commonly used existing method, propensity score matching, should almost never be used. Easy-to-use software is available to implement all methods discussed. Copies of his papers and software are available at his web site, GaryKing.org
Big Data is Not About the Data!, at Indiana University, Thursday, March 23, 2017:

The spectacular progress the media describes as "big data" has little to do with the data.  Data, after all, is becoming commoditized, less expensive, and an automatic byproduct of other changes in organizations and society. More data alone doesn't generate insights; it often merely makes data analysis harder. The real revolution isn't about the data, it is about the stunning progress in the statistical and other methods of extracting insights from the data. I illustrate these points with a wide range of examples from research I've participated in, including forecasting the solvency of Read more about Big Data is Not About the Data!

How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument, at MIT Distinguished Lecture Series, IDSS, Tuesday, March 7, 2017:

This talk is based on this paper (forthcoming in the American Political Science Review), by Jen Pan, Molly Roberts, and me, along with a brief summary of our previous work (2014 in Science here, and 2013 in the APSR here). Here's an abstract: The Chinese government has long Read more about How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument

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