The real danger posed by Nate Silver

Great aggregation comes at the expense of great raw material.

The statistical wunderkind Nate Silver’s clean sweep of states’ presidential picks and his accurate calling of nearly every U.S. Senate race seemed to offer a tidy conclusion to the great polling debates of the 2012 election.

The man who Jon Stewart called “president of the United States of arithmetic” emerged triumphant, besting not only pundits with their unscientific predictions but most traditional polling organizations as well. The debate -- typically framed as math vs. gut -- was over and math had carried the day.

As the dust settles, though, John Reinan at MinnPost points out there is a genuine danger posed by Silver’s brand of analysis and it has nothing to do with telling poor old ladies the day they’ll die.

The problem is that Silver doesn’t do any polling himself but instead aggregates dozens of other polls and weights their relative advantages and disadvantages. The result is a much sharper model than any of those individual polls offer with a lot less overhead.

But if people continue to turn to Silver’s aggregation model rather than traditional polls, then they might put some of those traditional polls out of business, which, among other things, will weaken Silver’s results.

This is a point the much-maligned Gallup made in a recent blog post, though you’d have to read through a lot of sour grapes to find it.

As Reinan points out, this is essentially the same bind facing traditional news agencies. Old-fashioned newsgathering takes a lot of time, money and resources. Once that work is done, however, aggregation sites can post the same story with almost no upfront investment. That means fewer advertising dollars for traditional media and less money for good reporting that can be aggregated.

Reinan’s outlet MinnPost, by the way, is a product of this big media tumult.

This isn’t to say aggregators can’t provide a better, more comprehensive or more targeted collection of stories for a reader than a traditional news site can. But, in the long run, the better the aggregation sites do their job the more it will hurt traditional newsgathering and the worse the aggregators’ raw content will be.