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

A Digital Library for the Dissemination and Replication of Quantitative Social Science Research

A Digital Library for the Dissemination and Replication of Quantitative Social Science Research
Micah Altman, Leonid Andreev, Mark Diggory, Gary King, Daniel L Kiskis, Elizabeth Kolster, Michael Krot, and Sidney Verba. 2001. “A Digital Library for the Dissemination and Replication of Quantitative Social Science Research.” Social Science Computer Review, 19, Pp. 458–470.Abstract
The Virtual Data Center (VDC) software is an open-source, digital library system for quantitative data. We discuss what the software does, and how it provides an infrastructure for the management and dissemination of disturbed collections of quantitative data, and the replication of results derived from this data.
Read more

Explaining Rare Events in International Relations

Explaining Rare Events in International Relations
Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2001. “Explaining Rare Events in International Relations.” International Organization, 55, Pp. 693–715.Abstract
Some of the most important phenomena in international conflict are coded s "rare events data," binary dependent variables with dozens to thousands of times fewer events, such as wars, coups, etc., than "nonevents". Unfortunately, rare events data are difficult to explain and predict, a problem that seems to have at least two sources. First, and most importantly, the data collection strategies used in international conflict are grossly inefficient. The fear of collecting data with too few events has led to data collections with huge numbers of observations but relatively few, and poorly measured, explanatory variables. As it turns out, more efficient sampling designs exist for making valid inferences, such as sampling all available events (e.g., wars) and a tiny fraction of non-events (peace). This enables scholars to save as much as 99% of their (non-fixed) data collection costs, or to collect much more meaningful explanatory variables. Second, logistic regression, and other commonly used statistical procedures, can underestimate the probability of rare events. We introduce some corrections that outperform existing methods and change the estimates of absolute and relative risks by as much as some estimated effects reported in the literature. We also provide easy-to-use methods and software that link these two results, enabling both types of corrections to work simultaneously.
Read more

Logistic Regression in Rare Events Data

Logistic Regression in Rare Events Data
Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2001. “Logistic Regression in Rare Events Data.” Political Analysis, 9, Pp. 137–163.Abstract
We study rare events data, binary dependent variables with dozens to thousands of times fewer ones (events, such as wars, vetoes, cases of political activism, or epidemiological infections) than zeros ("nonevents"). In many literatures, these variables have proven difficult to explain and predict, a problem that seems to have at least two sources. First, popular statistical procedures, such as logistic regression, can sharply underestimate the probability of rare events. We recommend corrections that outperform existing methods and change the estimates of absolute and relative risks by as much as some estimated effects reported in the literature. Second, commonly used data collection strategies are grossly inefficient for rare events data. The fear of collecting data with too few events has led to data collections with huge numbers of observations but relatively few, and poorly measured, explanatory variables, such as in international conflict data with more than a quarter-million dyads, only a few of which are at war. As it turns out, more efficient sampling designs exist for making valid inferences, such as sampling all variable events (e.g., wars) and a tiny fraction of nonevents (peace). This enables scholars to save as much as 99% of their (nonfixed) data collection costs or to collect much more meaningful explanatory variables. We provide methods that link these two results, enabling both types of corrections to work simultaneously, and software that implements the methods developed.
Read more

Analyzing Incomplete Political Science Data: An Alternative Algorithm for Multiple Imputation

Analyzing Incomplete Political Science Data: An Alternative Algorithm for Multiple Imputation
Gary King, James Honaker, Anne Joseph, and Kenneth Scheve. 2001. “Analyzing Incomplete Political Science Data: An Alternative Algorithm for Multiple Imputation.” American Political Science Review, 95, Pp. 49–69.Abstract

We propose a remedy for the discrepancy between the way political scientists analyze data with missing values and the recommendations of the statistics community. Methodologists and statisticians agree that "multiple imputation" is a superior approach to the problem of missing data scattered through one’s explanatory and dependent variables than the methods currently used in applied data analysis. The discrepancy occurs because the computational algorithms used to apply the best multiple imputation models have been slow, difficult to implement, impossible to run with existing commercial statistical packages, and have demanded considerable expertise. We adapt an algorithm and use it to implement a general-purpose, multiple imputation model for missing data. This algorithm is considerably easier to use than the leading method recommended in statistics literature. We also quantify the risks of current missing data practices, illustrate how to use the new procedure, and evaluate this alternative through simulated data as well as actual empirical examples. Finally, we offer easy-to-use that implements our suggested methods. (Software: AMELIA)

Read more

Improving Forecasts of State Failure

Improving Forecasts of State Failure
Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2001. “Improving Forecasts of State Failure.” World Politics, 53, Pp. 623–658.Abstract

We offer the first independent scholarly evaluation of the claims, forecasts, and causal inferences of the State Failure Task Force and their efforts to forecast when states will fail. State failure refers to the collapse of the authority of the central government to impose order, as in civil wars, revolutionary wars, genocides, politicides, and adverse or disruptive regime transitions. This task force, set up at the behest of Vice President Gore in 1994, has been led by a group of distinguished academics working as consultants to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. State Failure Task Force reports and publications have received attention in the media, in academia, and from public policy decision-makers. In this article, we identify several methodological errors in the task force work that cause their reported forecast probabilities of conflict to be too large, their causal inferences to be biased in unpredictable directions, and their claims of forecasting performance to be exaggerated. However, we also find that the task force has amassed the best and most carefully collected data on state failure in existence, and the required corrections which we provide, although very large in effect, are easy to implement. We also reanalyze their data with better statistical procedures and demonstrate how to improve forecasting performance to levels significantly greater than even corrected versions of their models. Although still a highly uncertain endeavor, we are as a consequence able to offer the first accurate forecasts of state failure, along with procedures and results that may be of practical use in informing foreign policy decision making. We also describe a number of strong empirical regularities that may help in ascertaining the causes of state failure.

Read more

Proper Nouns and Methodological Propriety: Pooling Dyads in International Relations Data

Proper Nouns and Methodological Propriety: Pooling Dyads in International Relations Data
Gary King. 2001. “Proper Nouns and Methodological Propriety: Pooling Dyads in International Relations Data.” International Organization, 55, Pp. 497–507.Abstract
The intellectual stakes at issue in this symposium are very high: Green, Kim, and Yoon (2000 and hereinafter GKY) apply their proposed methodological prescriptions and conclude that they key findings in the field is wrong and democracy "has no effect on militarized disputes." GKY are mainly interested in convincing scholars about their methodological points and see themselves as having no stake in the resulting substantive conclusions. However, their methodological points are also high stakes claims: if correct, the vast majority of statistical analyses of military conflict ever conducted would be invalidated. GKY say they "make no attempt to break new ground statistically," but, as we will see, this both understates their methodological contribution to the field and misses some unique features of their application and data in international relations. On the ltter, GKY’s critics are united: Oneal and Russett (2000) conclude that GKY’s method "produces distorted results," and show even in GKY’s framework how democracy’s effect can be reinstated. Beck and Katz (2000) are even more unambiguous: "GKY’s conclusion, in table 3, that variables such as democracy have no pacific impact, is simply nonsense...GKY’s (methodological) proposal...is NEVER a good idea." My given task is to sort out and clarify these conflicting claims and counterclaims. The procedure I followed was to engage in extensive discussions with the participants that included joint reanalyses provoked by our discussions and passing computer program code (mostly with Monte Carlo simulations) back and forth to ensure we were all talking about the same methods and agreed with the factual results. I learned a great deal from this process and believe that the positions of the participants are now a lot closer than it may seem from their written statements. Indeed, I believe that all the participants now agree with what I have written here, even though they would each have different emphases (and although my believing there is agreement is not the same as there actually being agreement!).
Read more
All writings

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

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).

Read more about How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument
All presentations

Books

  • «
  • 2 of 2
  •  
All writings

Gary King on Twitter