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.
    • 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

Isolating Spatial Autocorrelation, Aggregation Bias, and Distributional Violations in Ecological Inference

Gary King. 2002. “Isolating Spatial Autocorrelation, Aggregation Bias, and Distributional Violations in Ecological Inference.” Political Analysis, 10, Pp. 298–300.Abstract
This is an invited response to an article by Anselin and Cho. I make two main points: The numerical results in this article violate no conclusions from prior literature, and the absence of the deterministic information from the bounds in the article’s analyses invalidates its theoretical discussion of spatial autocorrelation and all of its actual simulation results. An appendix shows how to draw simulations correctly.
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The Rules of Inference

The Rules of Inference
Lee Epstein and Gary King. 2002. “The Rules of Inference.” University of Chicago Law Review, 69, Pp. 1–209.Abstract

Although the term "empirical research" has become commonplace in legal scholarship over the past two decades, law professors have, in fact, been conducting research that is empirical – that is, learning about the world using quantitative data or qualitative information – for almost as long as they have been conducting research. For just as long, however, they have been proceeding with little awareness of, much less compliance with, the rules of inference, and without paying heed to the key lessons of the revolution in empirical analysis that has been taking place over the last century in other disciplines. The tradition of including some articles devoted to exclusively to the methododology of empirical analysis – so well represented in journals in traditional academic fields – is virtually nonexistent in the nation’s law reviews. As a result, readers learn considerably less accurate information about the empirical world than the studies’ stridently stated, but overconfident, conclusions suggest. To remedy this situation both for the producers and consumers of empirical work, this Article adapts the rules of inference used in the natural and social sciences to the special needs, theories, and data in legal scholarship, and explicate them with extensive illustrations from existing research. The Article also offers suggestions for how the infrastructure of teaching and research at law schools might be reorganized so that it can better support the creation of first-rate empirical research without compromising other important objectives.

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Rethinking Human Security

Rethinking Human Security
Gary King and Christopher J.L. Murray. 2002. “Rethinking Human Security.” Political Science Quarterly, 116, Pp. 585–610.Abstract

In the last two decades, the international community has begun to conclude that attempts to ensure the territorial security of nation-states through military power have failed to improve the human condition. Despite astronomical levels of military spending, deaths due to military conflict have not declined. Moreover, even when the borders of some states are secure from foreign threats, the people within those states do not necessarily have freedom from crime, enough food, proper health care, education, or political freedom. In response to these developments, the international community has gradually moved to combine economic development with military security and other basic human rights to form a new concept of "human security". Unfortunately, by common assent the concept lacks both a clear definition, consistent with the aims of the international community, and any agreed upon measure of it. In this paper, we propose a simple, rigorous, and measurable definition of human security: the expected number of years of future life spent outside the state of "generalized poverty". Generalized poverty occurs when an individual falls below the threshold in any key domain of human well-being. We consider improvements in data collection and methods of forecasting that are necessary to measure human security and then introduce an agenda for research and action to enhance human security that follows logically in the areas of risk assessment, prevention, protection, and compensation.

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Empirical Research and The Goals of Legal Scholarship: A Response

Empirical Research and The Goals of Legal Scholarship: A Response
Lee Epstein and Gary King. 2002. “Empirical Research and The Goals of Legal Scholarship: A Response.” University of Chicago Law Review, 69, Pp. 1–209.Abstract
Although the term "empirical research" has become commonplace in legal scholarship over the past two decades, law professors have, in fact, been conducting research that is empirical – that is, learning about the world using quantitative data or qualitative information – for almost as long as they have been conducting research. For just as long, however, they have been proceeding with little awareness of, much less compliance with, the rules of inference, and without paying heed to the key lessons of the revolution in empirical analysis that has been taking place over the last century in other disciplines. The tradition of including some articles devoted to exclusively to the methododology of empirical analysis – so well represented in journals in traditional academic fields – is virtually nonexistent in the nation’s law reviews. As a result, readers learn considerably less accurate information about the empirical world than the studies’ stridently stated, but overconfident, conclusions suggest. To remedy this situation both for the producers and consumers of empirical work, this Article adapts the rules of inference used in the natural and social sciences to the special needs, theories, and data in legal scholarship, and explicate them with extensive illustrations from existing research. The Article also offers suggestions for how the infrastructure of teaching and research at law schools might be reorganized so that it can better support the creation of first-rate empirical research without compromising other important objectives.
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A Fast, Easy, and Efficient Estimator for Multiparty Electoral Data

James Honaker, Gary King, and Jonathan N Katz. 2002. “A Fast, Easy, and Efficient Estimator for Multiparty Electoral Data.” Political Analysis, 10, Pp. 84–100.Abstract
Katz and King (1999) develop a model for predicting or explaining aggregate electoral results in multiparty democracies. This model is, in principle, analogous to what least squares regression provides American politics researchers in that two-party system. Katz and King applied this model to three-party elections in England and revealed a variety of new features of incumbency advantage and where each party pulls support from. Although the mathematics of their statistical model covers any number of political parties, it is computationally very demanding, and hence slow and numerically imprecise, with more than three. The original goal of our work was to produce an approximate method that works quicker in practice with many parties without making too many theoretical compromises. As it turns out, the method we offer here improves on Katz and King’s (in bias, variance, numerical stability, and computational speed) even when the latter is computationally feasible. We also offer easy-to-use software that implements our suggestions.
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All writings

Presentations

How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas, at Department of Sociology, Harvard University, Wednesday, May 2, 2018:
This talk reports on the results of first large scale randomized news media experiment. We demonstrate that even small news media outlets can cause large numbers of Americans to take public stands on specific issues, join national policy conversations, and express themselves publicly—all key components of democratic politics—more often than they would otherwise. After recruiting 48 mostly small media outlets, and working with them over 55 years, we chose groups of these outlets to write and publish articles on subjects we approved, on dates we randomly assigned. We estimate the... Read more about How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas
How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas, at University of Vermont, Monday, April 30, 2018:
This talk reports on the results of first large scale randomized news media experiment. We demonstrate that even small news media outlets can cause large numbers of Americans to take public stands on specific issues, join national policy conversations, and express themselves publicly—all key components of democratic politics—more often than they would otherwise. After recruiting \(48\) mostly small media outlets, and working with them over \(5\) years, we chose groups of these outlets to write and publish articles on subjects we... Read more about How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas
How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas, at St. Louis Area Methods Meeting (SLAMM), Iowa State University, Friday, April 20, 2018:
This talk reports on the results of first large scale randomized news media experiment. We demonstrate that even small news media outlets can cause large numbers of Americans to take public stands on specific issues, join national policy conversations, and express themselves publicly—all key components of democratic politics—more often than they would otherwise. After recruiting \(48\) mostly small media outlets, and working with them over \(5\) years, we chose groups of these outlets to write and publish articles on subjects we... Read more about How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas
Simplifying Matching Methods for Causal Inference, at Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Friday, March 9, 2018:
We show how to use matching in causal inference to ameliorate model dependence -- where small, indefensible changes in model specification have large impacts on our conclusions. We introduce matching methods that are simpler, more powerful, and easier to understand than existing approaches. We also show that the most commonly used existing method, propensity score matching, should rarely be used in practice. Easy-to-use software is available to implement all methods discussed.
All presentations

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