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

What to do About Missing Values in Time Series Cross-Section Data

What to do About Missing Values in Time Series Cross-Section Data
James Honaker and Gary King. 2010. “What to do About Missing Values in Time Series Cross-Section Data.” American Journal of Political Science, 54, 3, Pp. 561-581. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Applications of modern methods for analyzing data with missing values, based primarily on multiple imputation, have in the last half-decade become common in American politics and political behavior. Scholars in these fields have thus increasingly avoided the biases and inefficiencies caused by ad hoc methods like listwise deletion and best guess imputation. However, researchers in much of comparative politics and international relations, and others with similar data, have been unable to do the same because the best available imputation methods work poorly with the time-series cross-section data structures common in these fields. We attempt to rectify this situation. First, we build a multiple imputation model that allows smooth time trends, shifts across cross-sectional units, and correlations over time and space, resulting in far more accurate imputations. Second, we build nonignorable missingness models by enabling analysts to incorporate knowledge from area studies experts via priors on individual missing cell values, rather than on difficult-to-interpret model parameters. Third, since these tasks could not be accomplished within existing imputation algorithms, in that they cannot handle as many variables as needed even in the simpler cross-sectional data for which they were designed, we also develop a new algorithm that substantially expands the range of computationally feasible data types and sizes for which multiple imputation can be used. These developments also made it possible to implement the methods introduced here in freely available open source software that is considerably more reliable than existing strategies.

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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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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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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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Detecting Model Dependence in Statistical Inference: A Response

Gary King and Langche Zeng. 2007. “Detecting Model Dependence in Statistical Inference: A Response.” International Studies Quarterly, 51, Pp. 231-241.Abstract

Inferences about counterfactuals are essential for prediction, answering "what if" questions, and estimating causal effects. However, when the counterfactuals posed are too far from the data at hand, conclusions drawn from well-specified statistical analyses become based on speculation and convenient but indefensible model assumptions rather than empirical evidence. Unfortunately, standard statistical approaches assume the veracity of the model rather than revealing the degree of model-dependence, and so this problem can be hard to detect. We develop easy-to-apply methods to evaluate counterfactuals that do not require sensitivity testing over specified classes of models. If an analysis fails the tests we offer, then we know that substantive results are sensitive to at least some modeling choices that are not based on empirical evidence. We use these methods to evaluate the extensive scholarly literatures on the effects of changes in the degree of democracy in a country (on any dependent variable) and separate analyses of the effects of UN peacebuilding efforts. We find evidence that many scholars are inadvertently drawing conclusions based more on modeling hypotheses than on their data. For some research questions, history contains insufficient information to be our guide.

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Replication, Replication

Replication, Replication
Gary King. 1995. “Replication, Replication.” PS: Political Science and Politics, 28, Pp. 444-452.Abstract

Political science is a community enterprise and the community of empirical political scientists need access to the body of data necessary to replicate existing studies to understand, evaluate, and especially build on this work. Unfortunately, the norms we have in place now do not encourage, or in some cases even permit, this aim. Following are suggestions that would facilitate replication and are easy to implement – by teachers, students, dissertation writers, graduate programs, authors, reviewers, funding agencies, and journal and book editors.

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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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Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China, at Ohio State University, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Thursday, October 22, 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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Why Propensity Scores Should Not Be Used For Matching, at Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Thursday, October 15, 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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