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

Publication, Publication

Publication, Publication
Gary King. 2006. “Publication, Publication.” PS: Political Science and Politics, 39, Pp. 119–125. Continuing updates to this paperAbstract

I show herein how to write a publishable paper by beginning with the replication of a published article. This strategy seems to work well for class projects in producing papers that ultimately get published, helping to professionalize students into the discipline, and teaching them the scientific norms of the free exchange of academic information. I begin by briefly revisiting the prominent debate on replication our discipline had a decade ago and some of the progress made in data sharing since.

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Death by Survey: Estimating Adult Mortality without Selection Bias from Sibling Survival Data

Death by Survey: Estimating Adult Mortality without Selection Bias from Sibling Survival Data
Emmanuela Gakidou and Gary King. 2006. “Death by Survey: Estimating Adult Mortality without Selection Bias from Sibling Survival Data.” Demography, 43, Pp. 569–585.Abstract
The widely used methods for estimating adult mortality rates from sample survey responses about the survival of siblings, parents, spouses, and others depend crucially on an assumption that we demonstrate does not hold in real data. We show that when this assumption is violated – so that the mortality rate varies with sibship size – mortality estimates can be massively biased. By using insights from work on the statistical analysis of selection bias, survey weighting, and extrapolation problems, we propose a new and relatively simple method of recovering the mortality rate with both greatly reduced potential for bias and increased clarity about the source of necessary assumptions.
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The Dangers of Extreme Counterfactuals

The Dangers of Extreme Counterfactuals
Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2006. “The Dangers of Extreme Counterfactuals.” Political Analysis, 14, Pp. 131–159.Abstract
We address the problem that occurs when inferences about counterfactuals – predictions, "what if" questions, and causal effects – are attempted far from the available data. The danger of these extreme counterfactuals is that substantive conclusions drawn from statistical models that fit the data well turn out to be based largely on speculation hidden in convenient modeling assumptions that few would be willing to defend. Yet existing statistical strategies provide few reliable means of identifying extreme counterfactuals. We offer a proof that inferences farther from the data are more model-dependent, and then develop easy-to-apply methods to evaluate how model-dependent our answers would be to specified counterfactuals. These methods require neither sensitivity testing over specified classes of models nor evaluating any specific modeling assumptions. If an analysis fails the simple tests we offer, then we know that substantive results are sensitive to at least some modeling choices that are not based on empirical evidence.
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The Effect of War on the Supreme Court

The Effect of War on the Supreme Court
Lee Epstein, Daniel E. Ho, Gary King, and Jeffrey A. Segal. 2006. “The Effect of War on the Supreme Court.” In Principles and Practice in American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Samuel Kernell and Steven S. Smith, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.Abstract

Does the U.S. Supreme Court curtail rights and liberties when the nation’s security is under threat? In hundreds of articles and books, and with renewed fervor since September 11, 2001, members of the legal community have warred over this question. Yet, not a single large-scale, quantitative study exists on the subject. Using the best data available on the causes and outcomes of every civil rights and liberties case decided by the Supreme Court over the past six decades and employing methods chosen and tuned especially for this problem, our analyses demonstrate that when crises threaten the nation’s security, the justices are substantially more likely to curtail rights and liberties than when peace prevails. Yet paradoxically, and in contradiction to virtually every theory of crisis jurisprudence, war appears to affect only cases that are unrelated to the war. For these cases, the effect of war and other international crises is so substantial, persistent, and consistent that it may surprise even those commentators who long have argued that the Court rallies around the flag in times of crisis. On the other hand, we find no evidence that cases most directly related to the war are affected. We attempt to explain this seemingly paradoxical evidence with one unifying conjecture: Instead of balancing rights and security in high stakes cases directly related to the war, the Justices retreat to ensuring the institutional checks of the democratic branches. Since rights-oriented and process-oriented dimensions seem to operate in different domains and at different times, and often suggest different outcomes, the predictive factors that work for cases unrelated to the war fail for cases related to the war. If this conjecture is correct, federal judges should consider giving less weight to legal principles outside of wartime but established during wartime, and attorneys should see it as their responsibility to distinguish cases along these lines.

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The Supreme Court During Crisis: How War Affects only Non-War Cases

The Supreme Court During Crisis: How War Affects only Non-War Cases
Lee Epstein, Daniel E Ho, Gary King, and Jeffrey A Segal. 2005. “The Supreme Court During Crisis: How War Affects only Non-War Cases.” New York University Law Review, 80, Pp. 1–116.Abstract
Does the U.S. Supreme Court curtail rights and liberties when the nation’s security is under threat? In hundreds of articles and books, and with renewed fervor since September 11, 2001, members of the legal community have warred over this question. Yet, not a single large-scale, quantitative study exists on the subject. Using the best data available on the causes and outcomes of every civil rights and liberties case decided by the Supreme Court over the past six decades and employing methods chosen and tuned especially for this problem, our analyses demonstrate that when crises threaten the nation’s security, the justices are substantially more likely to curtail rights and liberties than when peace prevails. Yet paradoxically, and in contradiction to virtually every theory of crisis jurisprudence, war appears to affect only cases that are unrelated to the war. For these cases, the effect of war and other international crises is so substantial, persistent, and consistent that it may surprise even those commentators who long have argued that the Court rallies around the flag in times of crisis. On the other hand, we find no evidence that cases most directly related to the war are affected. We attempt to explain this seemingly paradoxical evidence with one unifying conjecture: Instead of balancing rights and security in high stakes cases directly related to the war, the Justices retreat to ensuring the institutional checks of the democratic branches. Since rights-oriented and process-oriented dimensions seem to operate in different domains and at different times, and often suggest different outcomes, the predictive factors that work for cases unrelated to the war fail for cases related to the war. If this conjecture is correct, federal judges should consider giving less weight to legal principles outside of wartime but established during wartime, and attorneys should see it as their responsibility to distinguish cases along these lines.
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WhatIf: Software for Evaluating Counterfactuals

Heather Stoll, Gary King, and Langchee Zeng. 2005. “WhatIf: Software for Evaluating Counterfactuals.” Journal of Statistical Software, 15, 4, Pp. 1--18. Publisher's versionAbstract

This article describes WhatIf: Software for Evaluating Counterfactuals, an R package that implements the methods for evaluating counterfactuals introduced in King and Zeng (2006a) and King and Zeng (2006b). It offers easy-to-use techniques for assessing a counterfactual’s model dependence without having to conduct sensitivity testing over specified classes of models. These same methods can be used to approximate the common support of the treatment and control groups in causal inference.

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All writings

Presentations

Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used For Matching, at Society for Political Methodology, University of Rochester, Friday, July 24, 2015:

This talk summarizes a paper -- Gary King and Richard Nielsen. 2015. “Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used for Matching” -- with this abstract: Researchers use propensity score matching (PSM) as a data preprocessing step to selectively prune units prior to applying a model to estimate a causal effect. The goal of PSM is to reduce imbalance in the chosen pre-treatment covariates between the treated and control groups

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Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China, at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Science Alumni Day, Saturday, April 11, 2015:

Joint talk together with Jennifer Pan.  

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

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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

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All presentations

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