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

Matched Pairs and the Future of Cluster-Randomized Experiments: A Rejoinder

Matched Pairs and the Future of Cluster-Randomized Experiments: A Rejoinder
Kosuke Imai, Gary King, and Clayton Nall. 2009. “Matched Pairs and the Future of Cluster-Randomized Experiments: A Rejoinder.” Statistical Science, 24, Pp. 64–72.Abstract

A basic feature of many field experiments is that investigators are only able to randomize clusters of individuals–-such as households, communities, firms, medical practices, schools, or classrooms–-even when the individual is the unit of interest. To recoup the resulting efficiency loss, some studies pair similar clusters and randomize treatment within pairs. However, many other studies avoid pairing, in part because of claims in the literature, echoed by clinical trials standards organizations, that this matched-pair, cluster-randomization design has serious problems. We argue that all such claims are unfounded. We also prove that the estimator recommended for this design in the literature is unbiased only in situations when matching is unnecessary and and its standard error is also invalid. To overcome this problem without modeling assumptions, we develop a simple design-based estimator with much improved statistical properties. We also propose a model-based approach that includes some of the benefits of our design-based estimator as well as the estimator in the literature. Our methods also address individual-level noncompliance, which is common in applications but not allowed for in most existing methods. We show that from the perspective of bias, efficiency, power, robustness, or research costs, and in large or small samples, pairing should be used in cluster-randomized experiments whenever feasible and failing to do so is equivalent to discarding a considerable fraction of one’s data. We develop these techniques in the context of a randomized evaluation we are conducting of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Program.

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The Essential Role of Pair Matching in Cluster-Randomized Experiments, with Application to the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Evaluation

The Essential Role of Pair Matching in Cluster-Randomized Experiments, with Application to the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Evaluation
Kosuke Imai, Gary King, and Clayton Nall. 2009. “The Essential Role of Pair Matching in Cluster-Randomized Experiments, with Application to the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Evaluation.” Statistical Science, 24, Pp. 29–53.Abstract
A basic feature of many field experiments is that investigators are only able to randomize clusters of individuals–-such as households, communities, firms, medical practices, schools, or classrooms–-even when the individual is the unit of interest. To recoup the resulting efficiency loss, some studies pair similar clusters and randomize treatment within pairs. However, many other studies avoid pairing, in part because of claims in the literature, echoed by clinical trials standards organizations, that this matched-pair, cluster-randomization design has serious problems. We argue that all such claims are unfounded. We also prove that the estimator recommended for this design in the literature is unbiased only in situations when matching is unnecessary and and its standard error is also invalid. To overcome this problem without modeling assumptions, we develop a simple design-based estimator with much improved statistical properties. We also propose a model-based approach that includes some of the benefits of our design-based estimator as well as the estimator in the literature. Our methods also address individual-level noncompliance, which is common in applications but not allowed for in most existing methods. We show that from the perspective of bias, efficiency, power, robustness, or research costs, and in large or small samples, pairing should be used in cluster-randomized experiments whenever feasible and failing to do so is equivalent to discarding a considerable fraction of one’s data. We develop these techniques in the context of a randomized evaluation we are conducting of the Mexican Universal Health Insurance Program.
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CEM: Software for Coarsened Exact Matching

CEM: Software for Coarsened Exact Matching
Stefano M Iacus, Gary King, and Giuseppe Porro. 2009. “CEM: Software for Coarsened Exact Matching.” Journal of Statistical Software, 30. Publisher's VersionAbstract

This program is designed to improve causal inference via a method of matching that is widely applicable in observational data and easy to understand and use (if you understand how to draw a histogram, you will understand this method). The program implements the coarsened exact matching (CEM) algorithm, described below. CEM may be used alone or in combination with any existing matching method. This algorithm, and its statistical properties, are described in Iacus, King, and Porro (2008).

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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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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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Presentations

Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used For Matching, at Harvard University, Department of Statistics, Science Center 705, 9-11:30am, Wednesday, November 18, 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, thereby reducing the

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Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China, at IARPA seminar on "Science, Intelligence, and Security," Virginia Tech Research Center, Monday, November 16, 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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