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

The Balance-Sample Size Frontier in Matching Methods for Causal Inference

The Balance-Sample Size Frontier in Matching Methods for Causal Inference
Gary King, Christopher Lucas, and Richard Nielsen. In Press. “The Balance-Sample Size Frontier in Matching Methods for Causal Inference.” American Journal of Political Science.Abstract

We propose a simplified approach to matching for causal inference that simultaneously optimizes balance (similarity between the treated and control groups) and matched sample size. Existing approaches either fix the matched sample size and maximize balance or fix balance and maximize sample size, leaving analysts to settle for suboptimal solutions or attempt manual optimization by iteratively tweaking their matching method and rechecking balance. To jointly maximize balance and sample size, we introduce the matching frontier, the set of matching solutions with maximum possible balance for each sample size. Rather than iterating, researchers can choose matching solutions from the frontier for analysis in one step. We derive fast algorithms that calculate the matching frontier for several commonly used balance metrics. We demonstrate with analyses of the effect of sex on judging and job training programs that show how the methods we introduce can extract new knowledge from existing data sets.

Easy to use, open source, software is available here to implement all methods in the paper.

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How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument

How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument
Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. 2017. “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument.” American Political Science Review, 111, 3, Pp. 484-501. Publisher's VersionAbstract

The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called ``50c party'' posts vociferously argue for the government's side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime's strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime's strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We show that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of ``common knowledge'' and information control in authoritarian regimes.

This paper is related to our articles in Science, “Reverse-Engineering Censorship In China: Randomized Experimentation And Participant Observation”, and the American Political Science Review, “How Censorship In China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Collective Expression”.

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Comment on 'Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science'

Comment on 'Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science'
Daniel Gilbert, Gary King, Stephen Pettigrew, and Timothy Wilson. 2016. “Comment on 'Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science'.” Science, 351, 6277, Pp. 1037a-1038a. Publisher's VersionAbstract

recent article by the Open Science Collaboration (a group of 270 coauthors) gained considerable academic and public attention due to its sensational conclusion that the replicability of psychological science is surprisingly low. Science magazine lauded this article as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year across all fields of science, reports of which appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. We show that OSC's article contains three major statistical errors and, when corrected, provides no evidence of a replication crisis. Indeed, the evidence is consistent with the opposite conclusion -- that the reproducibility of psychological science is quite high and, in fact, statistically indistinguishable from 100%. (Of course, that doesn't mean that the replicability is 100%, only that the evidence is insufficient to reliably estimate replicability.) The moral of the story is that meta-science must follow the rules of science.

Replication data is available in this dataverse archive. See also the full web site for this article and related materials, and one of the news articles written about it.

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The C-SPAN Archives as The Policymaking Record of American Representative Democracy: A Foreword

The C-SPAN Archives as The Policymaking Record of American Representative Democracy: A Foreword
Gary King. 2016. “The C-SPAN Archives as The Policymaking Record of American Representative Democracy: A Foreword.” In Exploring the C-SPAN Archives: Advancing the Research Agenda, edited by Robert X Browning. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.Abstract

Almost two centuries ago, the idea of research libraries, and the possibility of building them at scale, began to be realized. Although we can find these libraries at every major college and university in the world today, and at many noneducational research institutions, this outcome was by no means obvious at the time. And the benefits we all now enjoy from their existence were then at best merely vague speculations.

How many would have supported the formation of these institutions at the time, without knowing the benefits that have since become obvious? After all, the arguments against this massive ongoing expenditure are impressive. The proposal was to construct large buildings, hire staff, purchase all manner of books and other publications and catalogue and shelve them, provide access to visitors, and continually reorder all the books that the visitors disorder. And the libraries would keep the books, and fund the whole operation, in perpetuity. Publications would be collected without anyone deciding which were of high quality and thus deserving of preservation—leading critics to argue that all this effort would result in expensive buildings packed mostly with junk.  . . .

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Do Nonpartisan Programmatic Policies Have Partisan Electoral Effects? Evidence from Two Large Scale Experiments

Do Nonpartisan Programmatic Policies Have Partisan Electoral Effects? Evidence from Two Large Scale Experiments
Kosuke Imai, Gary King, and Carlos Velasco Rivera. Working Paper. “Do Nonpartisan Programmatic Policies Have Partisan Electoral Effects? Evidence from Two Large Scale Experiments”.Abstract

A vast literature demonstrates that voters around the world who benefit from their governments' discretionary spending cast more ballots for the incumbent party than those who do not benefit. But contrary to most theories of political accountability, some suggest that voters also reward incumbent parties for implementing "programmatic" spending legislation, over which incumbents have no discretion, and even when passed with support from all major parties. Why voters would attribute responsibility when none exists is unclear, as is why minority party legislators would approve of legislation that would cost them votes. We study the electoral effects of two large prominent programmatic policies that fit the ideal type especially well, with unusually large scale experiments that bring more evidence to bear on this question than has previously been possible. For the first policy, we design and implement ourselves one of the largest randomized social experiments ever. For the second policy, we reanalyze studies that used a large scale randomized experiment and a natural experiment to study the same question but came to opposite conclusions. Using corrected data and improved statistical methods, we show that the evidence from all analyses of both policies is consistent: programmatic policies have no effect on voter support for incumbents. We conclude by discussing how the many other studies in the literature may be interpreted in light of our results.

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How Human Subjects Research Rules Mislead You and Your University, and What to Do About it

How Human Subjects Research Rules Mislead You and Your University, and What to Do About it
Gary King and Melissa Sands. Working Paper. “How Human Subjects Research Rules Mislead You and Your University, and What to Do About it”.Abstract

Universities require faculty and students planning research involving human subjects to pass formal certification tests and then submit research plans for prior approval. Those who diligently take the tests may better understand certain important legal requirements but, at the same time, are often misled into thinking they can apply these rules to their own work which, in fact, they are not permitted to do. They will also be missing many other legal requirements not mentioned in their training but which govern their behaviors. Finally, the training leaves them likely to completely misunderstand the essentially political situation they find themselves in. The resulting risks to their universities, collaborators, and careers may be catastrophic, in addition to contributing to the more common ordinary frustrations of researchers with the system. To avoid these problems, faculty and students conducting research about and for the public need to understand that they are public figures, to whom different rules apply, ones that political scientists have long studied. University administrators (and faculty in their part-time roles as administrators) need to reorient their perspectives as well. University research compliance bureaucracies have grown, in well-meaning but sometimes unproductive ways that are not required by federal laws or guidelines. We offer advice to faculty and students for how to deal with the system as it exists now, and suggestions for changes in university research compliance bureaucracies, that should benefit faculty, students, staff, university budgets, and our research subjects.

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Preface: Big Data is Not About the Data!

Preface: Big Data is Not About the Data!
Gary King. 2016. “Preface: Big Data is Not About the Data!” In Computational Social Science: Discovery and Prediction, edited by R. Michael Alvarez. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Abstract

A few years ago, explaining what you did for a living to Dad, Aunt Rose, or your friend from high school was pretty complicated. Answering that you develop statistical estimators, work on numerical optimization, or, even better, are working on a great new Markov Chain Monte Carlo implementation of a Bayesian model with heteroskedastic errors for automated text analysis is pretty much the definition of conversation stopper.

Then the media noticed the revolution we’re all apart of, and they glued a label to it. Now “Big Data” is what you and I do.  As trivial as this change sounds, we should be grateful for it, as the name seems to resonate with the public and so it helps convey the importance of our field to others better than we had managed to do ourselves. Yet, now that we have everyone’s attention, we need to start clarifying for others -- and ourselves -- what the revolution means. This is much of what this book is about.

Throughout, we need to remember that for the most part, Big Data is not about the data....

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Presentations

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.
How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas Friday, February 16, 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 approved, on dates we randomly assigned. We estimate the causal effect... Read more about How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas
How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know it When You See it, at Stony Brook University, Institute for Advanced Computational Science, Thursday, February 15, 2018:
To prevent gerrymandering and to encourage a form of democratic representation, many state constitutions and judicial opinions require US legislative districts be "compact." Yet, few precise definitions are offered other than "you know it when you see it," effectively assuming the existence of a common understanding of the concept. In contrast, academics have concluded that the concept has multiple theoretical dimensions requiring large numbers of conflicting empirical measures. This has proved extremely challenging for courts tasked with adjudicating compactness. We hypothesize that both are... Read more about How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know it When You See it
Matching Methods for Causal Inference, at Microsoft, Cambridge, Friday, January 19, 2018:
This presentation shows 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. We also show that the most commonly used existing method, propensity score matching, should rarely be used. Easy-to-use software is available to implement all methods discussed.
All presentations

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