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

From Preserving the Past to Preserving the Future: The Data-PASS Project and the Challenges of Preserving Digital Social Science Data

From Preserving the Past to Preserving the Future: The Data-PASS Project and the Challenges of Preserving Digital Social Science Data
Myron P Gutmann, Mark Abrahamson, Margaret O Adams, Micah Altman, Caroline Arms, Kenneth Bollen, Michael Carlson, Jonathan Crabtree, Darrell Donakowski, Gary King, Jaret Lyle, Marc Maynard, Amy Pienta, Richard Rockwell, Lois Rocms-Ferrara, and Copeland H Young. 2009. “From Preserving the Past to Preserving the Future: The Data-PASS Project and the Challenges of Preserving Digital Social Science Data.” Library Trends, 57, Pp. 315–337.Abstract

Social science data are an unusual part of the past, present, and future of digital preservation. They are both an unqualified success, due to long-lived and sustainable archival organizations, and in need of further development because not all digital content is being preserved. This article is about the Data Preservation Alliance for Social Sciences (Data-PASS), a project supported by the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), which is a partnership of five major U.S. social science data archives. Broadly speaking, Data-PASS has the goal of ensuring that at-risk social science data are identified, acquired, and preserved, and that we have a future-oriented organization that could collaborate on those preservation tasks for the future. Throughout the life of the Data-PASS project we have worked to identify digital materials that have never been systematically archived, and to appraise and acquire them. As the project has progressed, however, it has increasingly turned its attention from identifying and acquiring legacy and at-risk social science data to identifying on going and future research projects that will produce data. This article is about the project's history, with an emphasis on the issues that underlay the transition from looking backward to looking forward.

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A Proposed Standard for the Scholarly Citation of Quantitative Data

A Proposed Standard for the Scholarly Citation of Quantitative Data
Micah Altman and Gary King. 2007. “A Proposed Standard for the Scholarly Citation of Quantitative Data.” D-Lib Magazine, 13. Publisher's VersionAbstract

An essential aspect of science is a community of scholars cooperating and competing in the pursuit of common goals. A critical component of this community is the common language of and the universal standards for scholarly citation, credit attribution, and the location and retrieval of articles and books. We propose a similar universal standard for citing quantitative data that retains the advantages of print citations, adds other components made possible by, and needed due to, the digital form and systematic nature of quantitative data sets, and is consistent with most existing subfield-specific approaches. Although the digital library field includes numerous creative ideas, we limit ourselves to only those elements that appear ready for easy practical use by scientists, journal editors, publishers, librarians, and archivists.

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The Future of Death in America

The Future of Death in America
Gary King and Samir Soneji. 2011. “The Future of Death in America.” Demographic Research, 25, 1, Pp. 1--38. WebsiteAbstract

Population mortality forecasts are widely used for allocating public health expenditures, setting research priorities, and evaluating the viability of public pensions, private pensions, and health care financing systems. In part because existing methods seem to forecast worse when based on more information, most forecasts are still based on simple linear extrapolations that ignore known biological risk factors and other prior information. We adapt a Bayesian hierarchical forecasting model capable of including more known health and demographic information than has previously been possible. This leads to the first age- and sex-specific forecasts of American mortality that simultaneously incorporate, in a formal statistical model, the effects of the recent rapid increase in obesity, the steady decline in tobacco consumption, and the well known patterns of smooth mortality age profiles and time trends. Formally including new information in forecasts can matter a great deal. For example, we estimate an increase in male life expectancy at birth from 76.2 years in 2010 to 79.9 years in 2030, which is 1.8 years greater than the U.S. Social Security Administration projection and 1.5 years more than U.S. Census projection. For females, we estimate more modest gains in life expectancy at birth over the next twenty years from 80.5 years to 81.9 years, which is virtually identical to the Social Security Administration projection and 2.0 years less than U.S. Census projections. We show that these patterns are also likely to greatly affect the aging American population structure. We offer an easy-to-use approach so that researchers can include other sources of information and potentially improve on our forecasts too.

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Inference in Case-Control Studies

Inference in Case-Control Studies
Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2004. “Inference in Case-Control Studies.” In Encyclopedia of Biopharmaceutical Statistics, edited by Shein-Chung Chow, 2nd ed. New York: Marcel Dekker.Abstract

Classic (or "cumulative") case-control sampling designs do not admit inferences about quantities of interest other than risk ratios, and then only by making the rare events assumption. Probabilities, risk differences, and other quantities cannot be computed without knowledge of the population incidence fraction. Similarly, density (or "risk set") case-control sampling designs do not allow inferences about quantities other than the rate ratio. Rates, rate differences, cumulative rates, risks, and other quantities cannot be estimated unless auxiliary information about the underlying cohort such as the number of controls in each full risk set is available. Most scholars who have considered the issue recommend reporting more than just the relative risks and rates, but auxiliary population information needed to do this is not usually available. We address this problem by developing methods that allow valid inferences about all relevant quantities of interest from either type of case-control study when completely ignorant of or only partially knowledgeable about relevant auxiliary population information.

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Computational Social Science

Computational Social Science
David Lazer, Alex Pentland, Lada Adamic, Sinan Aral, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Devon Brewer, Nicholas Christakis, Noshir Contractor, James Fowler, Myron Gutmann, Tony Jebara, Gary King, Michael Macy, Deb Roy, and Marshall Van Alstyne. 2009. “Computational Social Science.” Science, 323, Pp. 721-723.Abstract

A field is emerging that leverages the capacity to collect and analyze data at a scale that may reveal patterns of individual and group behaviors.

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Public Policy for the Poor? A Randomised Assessment of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Programme

Public Policy for the Poor? A Randomised Assessment of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Programme
Gary King, Emmanuela Gakidou, Kosuke Imai, Jason Lakin, Ryan T Moore, Clayton Nall, Nirmala Ravishankar, Manett Vargas, Martha María Téllez-Rojo, Juan Eugenio Hernández Ávila, Mauricio Hernández Ávila, and Héctor Hernández Llamas. 2009. “Public Policy for the Poor? A Randomised Assessment of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Programme.” The Lancet, 373, Pp. 1447-1454.Abstract

Background: We assessed aspects of Seguro Popular, a programme aimed to deliver health insurance, regular and preventive medical care, medicines, and health facilities to 50 million uninsured Mexicans. Methods: We randomly assigned treatment within 74 matched pairs of health clusters–-i.e., health facility catchment areas–-representing 118,569 households in seven Mexican states, and measured outcomes in a 2005 baseline survey (August 2005, to September 2005) and follow-up survey 10 months later (July 2006, to August 2006) in 50 pairs (n=32 515). The treatment consisted of encouragement to enrol in a health-insurance programme and upgraded medical facilities. Participant states also received funds to improve health facilities and to provide medications for services in treated clusters. We estimated intention to treat and complier average causal effects non-parametrically. Findings: Intention-to-treat estimates indicated a 23% reduction from baseline in catastrophic expenditures (1·9% points and 95% CI 0·14-3·66). The effect in poor households was 3·0% points (0·46-5·54) and in experimental compliers was 6·5% points (1·65-11·28), 30% and 59% reductions, respectively. The intention-to-treat effect on health spending in poor households was 426 pesos (39-812), and the complier average causal effect was 915 pesos (147-1684). Contrary to expectations and previous observational research, we found no effects on medication spending, health outcomes, or utilisation. Interpretation: Programme resources reached the poor. However, the programme did not show some other effects, possibly due to the short duration of treatment (10 months). Although Seguro Popular seems to be successful at this early stage, further experiments and follow-up studies, with longer assessment periods, are needed to ascertain the long-term effects of the programme.

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Presentations

How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas, at Dartmouth University Data Analytics Association, Friday, October 19, 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... Read more about How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas
Reverse Engineering Chinese Government Information Controls, at Harvard Weatherhead Center Distinguished Faculty Lecture in Global Affairs; Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, October 3, 2018:
This talk is based on this paper (in the current issue of the American Political Science Review), by Jen Pan, Molly Roberts, and me, along with a brief summary of our previous work (in Science here, and the American Poltiical Science Review ... Read more about Reverse Engineering Chinese Government Information Controls
Simplifying Matching Methods for Causal Inference, at National Taiwan University, Wednesday, May 30, 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.
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