Gary King is David Florence Professor of Government and Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) at Harvard University. In the course of introductory discussions relating his work to ours, Professor King generously agreed to be interviewed for OpenBI Forum. My October and November columns will be Q&As with him surrounding quantitative social science and BI. In a later column, I'll focus on exciting technology developments for a world-wide launch at IQSS of what will be called the Dataverse Network. I trust you'll find Professor King's insights and the IQSSs analytical leadership as informative and BI-thought-provoking as I do. I hope also that you'll look to start adapting these methods to solve real business problems as opportunities present.
SM: You're a political scientist by training. How did you end up as the director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard?
GK: You may remember "polisci" from qualitative courses you took in college. But a growing fraction of research in political science is heavily quantitative and statistical. Political science is also one of the most interdisciplinary fields in academia, and indeed the training of at least some of my colleagues in the Government department at Harvard span political science, business, sociology, economics, statistics, law, anthropology and other areas. My focus within political science is on empirical methods, a subfield known as "political methodology," and because of the interdisciplinary nature of political science we have the most diverse types of data and methodological problems of any of the methodological fields within the traditional academic disciplines, such as econometrics within economics, psychometrics within psychology, biostatistics and epidemiology within medicine, etc. In any event, I think you can begin to get a sense why a political scientist might lead a interdisciplinary institute devoted to quantitative analysis of social science problems.
SM: Could you tell us a bit about the Institute, its charter and some early accomplishments?
GK: The scientific mission of IQSS is to create, and make widely accessible, statistical and analytical tools for the social sciences and related areas and to use these tools for understanding and solving major problems that affect society and the well-being of human populations. We foster interdisciplinary, larger-scale and highly collaborative projects that cannot readily be accomplished within the traditional setting of individual departments. We are also building a scientific culture where faculty, students and staff work side by side, not only to solve their own disciplinary problems, but also to seek out problems in unrelated or applied areas amenable to the same approach.
The tools that scholars at IQSS have created have been used in many fields of academia and beyond. For example, most states, legislatures, courts and partisans use the methods we developed to evaluate the fairness of legislative redistricting plans and the existence of partisan and racial gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court discussed our proposals favorably in three of its opinions in the recent Texas redistricting case.
We've created methods of survey research, now implemented in surveys in over 80 countries and many fields, that avoids the problem of survey respondents thinking you mean something different than they do, or different respondents interpreting the same question in different ways.
We've developed statistical and other methods for a wide range of other problems too. Many of these are implemented in software we make available.
SM: Are HBS faculty affiliated with the Institute? How much, if any, of a business focus does IQSS have?
GK: HBS's strength historically has been in qualitative research and is only just beginning to develop strengths in quantitative research. Nevertheless, we do have some of their faculty regularly attending our seminars and workshops and hope to be able to help them gear up when interested.
At Harvard, most centers and institutes are located within one of our 12 schools. IQSS has been located within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences which is where the undergraduate college and graduate school reside, but the University recently decided - and will announce this academic year - that IQSS will be transformed into a university-wide Institute, spanning all of Harvard's schools. Of course, this also includes HBS.
SM: The publishing of Freakonomics, with its emphasis on using statistical techniques to address rather mundane economic problems, has started to educate the public on the evolving role of data and quantitative social science and has served to bridge the gap between the approaches of statistics and the softer business intelligence. Could you tell us how the quantitative social science discipline has changed in the last 20 years? Has the domain of social statistics expanded? Has it become more applied - more focused on solving real world problems?
GK: Steve Levitt, author of Freakonomics, was a graduate of a program we ran that eventually became IQSS, so along with many others we're happy to claim him as our product!