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 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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Estimating the Probability of Events that Have Never Occurred: When Is Your Vote Decisive?

Estimating the Probability of Events that Have Never Occurred: When Is Your Vote Decisive?
Andrew Gelman, Gary King, and John Boscardin. 1998. “Estimating the Probability of Events that Have Never Occurred: When Is Your Vote Decisive?” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 93, Pp. 1–9.Abstract
Researchers sometimes argue that statisticians have little to contribute when few realizations of the process being estimated are observed. We show that this argument is incorrect even in the extreme situation of estimating the probabilities of events so rare that they have never occurred. We show how statistical forecasting models allow us to use empirical data to improve inferences about the probabilities of these events. Our application is estimating the probability that your vote will be decisive in a U.S. presidential election, a problem that has been studied by political scientists for more than two decades. The exact value of this probability is of only minor interest, but the number has important implications for understanding the optimal allocation of campaign resources, whether states and voter groups receive their fair share of attention from prospective presidents, and how formal "rational choice" models of voter behavior might be able to explain why people vote at all. We show how the probability of a decisive vote can be estimated empirically from state-level forecasts of the presidential election and illustrate with the example of 1992. Based on generalizations of standard political science forecasting models, we estimate the (prospective) probability of a single vote being decisive as about 1 in 10 million for close national elections such as 1992, varying by about a factor of 10 among states. Our results support the argument that subjective probabilities of many types are best obtained through empirically based statistical prediction models rather than solely through mathematical reasoning. We discuss the implications of our findings for the types of decision analyses used in public choice studies.
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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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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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Improving Quantitative Studies of International Conflict: A Conjecture

Improving Quantitative Studies of International Conflict: A Conjecture
Nathaniel Beck, Gary King, and Langche Zeng. 2000. “Improving Quantitative Studies of International Conflict: A Conjecture.” American Political Science Review, 94, Pp. 21–36.Abstract
We address a well-known but infrequently discussed problem in the quantitative study of international conflict: Despite immense data collections, prestigious journals, and sophisticated analyses, empirical findings in the literature on international conflict are often unsatisfying. Many statistical results change from article to article and specification to specification. Accurate forecasts are nonexistant. In this article we offer a conjecture about one source of this problem: 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 they are large, stable, and replicable wherever the ex ante probability of conflict is large. This simple idea has an unexpectedly rich array of observable implications, all consistent with the literature. We directly test our conjecture by formulating a statistical model that includes critical features. Our approach, a version of a "neural network" model, uncovers some interesting structural features of international conflict, and as one evaluative measure, forecasts substantially better than any previous effort. Moreover, this improvement comes at little cost, and it is easy to evaluate whether the model is a statistical improvement over the simpler models commonly used.
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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

Simplifying Matching Methods for Causal Inference, at MIT, Political Methodology Series, Monday, March 16, 2015:

This talk explains how to make matching methods for causal inference easier to use and more powerful. Applied researchers commonly use matching methods as a data preprocessing step for reducing model dependence and bias, after which they use whatever statistical procedure they would have without matching, such as regression. They routinely ignore the requirement that all matches be exact, and also commonly use ad hoc analyses that iterate between formal matching methods and informal balance and sample size checks. The talk describes 3 papers which (1) offer the first comprehensive...

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Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China, at Harvard Graduate Commons Program, Wednesday, February 11, 2015:

Chinese government censorship of social media constitutes the largest selective suppression of human communication in recorded history. In three ways, we show, paradoxically, that this large system also leaves large footprints that reveal a great deal about itself and the intentions of the government. First is an observational study where we download all social media posts before the Chinese government can read and censor those they deem objectionable, and then detect from a network of computers all over the world which are censored. Second, we conduct...

Read more about Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China
Simplifying Matching Methods for Causal Inference, at Princeton University, Center for Statistics and Machine Learning, Friday, February 6, 2015:

This talk explains how to make matching methods for causal inference easier to use and more powerful. Applied researchers commonly use matching methods as a data preprocessing step for reducing model dependence and bias, after which they use whatever statistical procedure they would have without matching, such as regression. They routinely ignore the requirement that all matches be exact, and also commonly use ad hoc analyses that iterate between formal matching methods and informal balance and sample size checks. The talk describes 3 papers which (1) offer the first comprehensive...

Read more about Simplifying Matching Methods for Causal Inference
Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China, at American University, Friday, January 30, 2015:

Chinese government censorship of social media constitutes the largest selective suppression of human communication in recorded history. In three ways, we show, paradoxically, that this large system also leaves large footprints that reveal a great deal about itself and the intentions of the government. First is an observational study where we download all social media posts before the Chinese government can read and censor those they deem objectionable, and then detect from a network of computers all over the world which are censored. Second, we conduct...

Read more about Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China
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