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, 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.
    • Automated Text Analysis
      Automated and computer-assisted methods of extracting, organizing, understanding, conceptualizing, and consuming knowledge from massive quantities of unstructured text.
    • 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").
    • 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

No Evidence on Directional vs. Proximity Voting

No Evidence on Directional vs. Proximity Voting
Jeffrey Lewis and Gary King. 1999. “No Evidence on Directional vs. Proximity Voting.” Political Analysis, 8, Pp. 21–33.Abstract
The directional and proximity models offer dramatically different theories for how voters make decisions and fundamentally divergent views of the supposed microfoundations on which vast bodies of literature in theoretical rational choice and empirical political behavior have been built. We demonstrate here that the empirical tests in the large and growing body of literature on this subject amount to theoretical debates about which statistical assumption is right. The key statistical assumptions have not been empirically tested and, indeed, turn out to be effectively untestable with exiting methods and data. Unfortunately, these assumptions are also crucial since changing them leads to different conclusions about voter processes.
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Binomial-Beta Hierarchical Models for Ecological Inference

Binomial-Beta Hierarchical Models for Ecological Inference
Gary King, Ori Rosen, and Martin A Tanner. 1999. “Binomial-Beta Hierarchical Models for Ecological Inference.” Sociological Methods and Research, 28, Pp. 61–90.Abstract
The authors develop binomial-beta hierarchical models for ecological inference using insights from the literature on hierarchical models based on Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms and King’s ecological inference model. The new approach reveals some features of the data that King’s approach does not, can easily be generalized to more complicated problems such as general R x C tables, allows the data analyst to adjust for covariates, and provides a formal evaluation of the significance of the covariates. It may also be better suited to cases in which the observed aggregate cells are estimated from very few observations or have some forms of measurement error. This article also provides an example of a hierarchical model in which the statistical idea of "borrowing strength" is used not merely to increase the efficiency of the estimates but to enable the data analyst to obtain estimates.
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Many Publications, but Still No Evidence

Gary King and Michael Laver. 1999. “Many Publications, but Still No Evidence.” Electoral Studies, 18, Pp. 597–598.Abstract
In 1990, Budge and Hofferbert (B&H) claimed that they had found solid evidence that party platforms cause U.S. budgetary priorities, and thus concluded that mandate theory applies in the United States as strongly as it does elsewhere. The implications of this stunning conclusion would mean that virtually every observer of the American party system in this century has been wrong. King and Laver (1993) reanalyzed B&H’s data and demonstrated in two ways that there exists no evidence for a causal relationship. First, accepting their entire statistical model, and correcting only an algebraic error (a mistake in how they computed their standard errors), we showed that their hypothesized relationship holds up in fewer than half the tests they reported. Second, we showed that their statistical model includes a slightly hidden but politically implausible assumption that a new party achieves every budgetary desire immediately upon taking office. We then specified a model without this unrealistic assumption and we found that the assumption was not supported, and that all evidence in the data for platforms causing government budgets evaporated. In their published response to our article, B&H withdrew their key claim and said they were now (in 1993) merely interested in an association and not causation. That is how it was left in 1993—a perfectly amicable resolution as far as we were concerned—since we have no objection to the claim that there is a non-causal or chance association between any two variables. Of course, we see little reason to be interested in non-causal associations in this area any more than in the chance correlation that exists between the winner of the baseball World Series and the party winning the U.S. presidency. Since party mandate theory only makes sense as a causal theory, the conventional wisdom about America’s porous, non-mandate party system stands.
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A Statistical Model for Multiparty Electoral Data

A Statistical Model for Multiparty Electoral Data
Jonathan Katz and Gary King. 1999. “A Statistical Model for Multiparty Electoral Data.” American Political Science Review, 93, Pp. 15–32.Abstract
We propose a comprehensive statistical model for analyzing multiparty, district-level elections. This model, which provides a tool for comparative politics research analagous to that which regression analysis provides in the American two-party context, can be used to explain or predict how geographic distributions of electoral results depend upon economic conditions, neighborhood ethnic compositions, campaign spending, and other features of the election campaign or aggregate areas. We also provide new graphical representations for data exploration, model evaluation, and substantive interpretation. We illustrate the use of this model by attempting to resolve a controversy over the size of and trend in electoral advantage of incumbency in Britain. Contrary to previous analyses, all based on measures now known to be biased, we demonstrate that the advantage is small but meaningful, varies substantially across the parties, and is not growing. Finally, we show how to estimate the party from which each party’s advantage is predominantly drawn.
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The Future of Ecological Inference Research: A Reply to Freedman et al.

The Future of Ecological Inference Research: A Reply to Freedman et al.
Gary King. 1999. “The Future of Ecological Inference Research: A Reply to Freedman et al.” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 94, Pp. 352-355.Abstract
I appreciate the editor’s invitation to reply to Freedman et al.’s (1998) review of "A Solution to the Ecological Inference Problem: Reconstructing Individual Behavior from Aggregate Data" (Princeton University Press.) I welcome this scholarly critique and JASA’s decision to publish in this field. Ecological inference is a large and very important area for applications that is especially rich with open statistical questions. I hope this discussion stimulates much new scholarship. Freedman et al. raise several interesting issues, but also misrepresent or misunderstand the prior literature, my approach, and their own empirical analyses, and compound the problem, by refusing requests from me and the editor to make their data and software available for this note. Some clarification is thus in order.
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Not Asked and Not Answered: Multiple Imputation for Multiple Surveys

Not Asked and Not Answered: Multiple Imputation for Multiple Surveys
Andrew Gelman, Gary King, and Chuanhai Liu. 1999. “Not Asked and Not Answered: Multiple Imputation for Multiple Surveys.” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 93, Pp. 846–857.Abstract
We present a method of analyzing a series of independent cross-sectional surveys in which some questions are not answered in some surveys and some respondents do not answer some of the questions posed. The method is also applicable to a single survey in which different questions are asked or different sampling methods are used in different strata or clusters. Our method involves multiply imputing the missing items and questions by adding to existing methods of imputation designed for single surveys a hierarchical regression model that allows covariates at the individual and survey levels. Information from survey weights is exploited by including in the analysis the variables on which the weights are based, and then reweighting individual responses (observed and imputed) to estimate population quantities. We also develop diagnostics for checking the fit of the imputation model based on comparing imputed data to nonimputed data. We illustrate with the example that motivated this project: a study of pre-election public opinion polls in which not all the questions of interest are asked in all the surveys, so that it is infeasible to impute within each survey separately.
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Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation

Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation
Gary King, Michael Tomz, and Jason Wittenberg. 2000. “Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation.” American Journal of Political Science, 44, Pp. 341–355. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Social Scientists rarely take full advantage of the information available in their statistical results. As a consequence, they miss opportunities to present quantities that are of greatest substantive interest for their research and express the appropriate degree of certainty about these quantities. In this article, we offer an approach, built on the technique of statistical simulation, to extract the currently overlooked information from any statistical method and to interpret and present it in a reader-friendly manner. Using this technique requires some expertise, which we try to provide herein, but its application should make the results of quantitative articles more informative and transparent. To illustrate our recommendations, we replicate the results of several published works, showing in each case how the authors’ own conclusions can be expressed more sharply and informatively, and, without changing any data or statistical assumptions, how our approach reveals important new information about the research questions at hand. We also offer very easy-to-use Clarify software that implements our suggestions.
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Presentations

Detecting and Reducing Model Dependence in Causal Inference, at Peking University, Wednesday, July 26, 2017:

This presentation discusses methods of detecting counterfactuals (predictions, what if questions, and casual inferences) far enough from the data that any inferences based on it will yield highly model dependent inferences -- where small, indefensible changes in a model specification have large impacts on our conclusions. The talk also shows how to ameliorate many situations like this via  matching for causal inference. We introduce matching methods that are simpler, more powerful, and easier to understand. We also show that the most commonly used...

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How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know it When You See it, at Society for Political Methodology Conference, University of Wisconsin, Friday, July 14, 2017:

The US Supreme Court, many state constitutions, and numerous judicial opinions require that legislative districts be "compact," a concept assumed so simple that the only definition given in the law is "you know it when you see it." Academics, in contrast, have concluded that the concept is so complex that it has multiple theoretical dimensions requiring large numbers of conflicting empirical measures. We hypothesize that both are correct -- that the concept is complex and multidimensional, but one particular unidimensional ordering represents a...

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How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know it When You See it, at Hubert M. Blalock Memorial Lecture, University of Michigan, Wednesday, July 12, 2017:
The US Supreme Court, many state constitutions, and numerous judicial opinions require that legislative districts be "compact," a concept assumed so simple that the only definition given in the law is "you know it when you see it." Academics, in contrast, have concluded that the concept is so complex that it has multiple theoretical dimensions requiring large numbers of conflicting empirical measures. We hypothesize that both are correct -- that the concept is complex and multidimensional, but one particular unidimensional ordering represents a common... Read more about How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know it When You See it
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Books

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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Gary King on Twitter

  • kinggary
    kinggary @shabbychef If so, it would be even more impressive
  • kinggary
    kinggary He's 90 years old with a claimed proof of the most important unproven theorem in mathematics and no one has claimed it is wrong yet? That sounds like a pretty good win already. t.co/92Oy6Vvx4R
  • kinggary
    kinggary For presentations, don't "dumb it down" (you're then presenting dumb work!). Instead, do it right, even if highly sophisticated, & figure out how to teach effectively & convey the point clearly. (That's why even publishing mathematical proofs requires accompanying "intuition")