[R] Protocol for answering basic questions

Robert Brown FM CEFAS r.g.brown at cefas.co.uk
Wed Dec 1 17:46:07 CET 2004

I have been following the discussions on 'Reasons not to answer very basic questions in a straightforward way' with interest as someone who is also new to R and has had similar experiences.  As such it with sadness that I note that most seem to agree with the present approach to the responses to basic questions.  I must thank those respondants to my own questions who have been helpful, but there are some whose replies are in my opinion not only unhelpful but actually rude.  Indeed I've now started using Splus instead of R so as to have access to a 'proper' support service.  Indeed, the main thing I've learned from R is a new respect for the values of commercial software and a scepticism regarding free software. In the end my experience of r help is that you get what you pay for. Many of the so called socratic responses (in this list and the wider academic community) can be seen as simply way to avoid additional work of a complete reply. 

Experienced R users don't seem to understand how difficult the program can be to new users. Responding that the questioner should read the 'Introduction to R' or a similar document is like  answering a question for directions to one's house with 'Buy a map'.  Most likely both such questioners have already tried that and are asking because that approach failed.  R is a language and like all languages it is simple to those that understand it and complex to those who do not. Every schoolboy in Spain speaks Spanish, but I know from experience that for most English people it is very difficult to learn Spanish and take years of study.  If I'm asked a question from a novice of a language (be it Spanish or R) do I reply 'consult the dictionary'. I would hope not!  I can tell repondants that whilst many of my basic questions may seem simple it is not for lack of studying the very sources they refer to.  If only learning was so simple.  I suspect that the same is true of most questioners.

I speak as someone with a PhD and many years as a researcher in my speciality as well as someone close to completing a masters in statistics with distinction. As such I am not a total novice and would suggest that if I'm having problems so are many; and it is not a result of lack of study as so many responses seem to suggest.  Indeed it is revealing that several responses suggest that they want to discourage questions so they don't overwhelm r-help.  Understandable but not a recipe to encourage the use of R by other than experts. The R community needs to decide of they really only want expert statisticians users and make this clear if it is the case.  Alternatively if they are to encourage novices the present approach is not the way to do it.

I can appreciate that many of the respondants are busy, but if that is the case it would be better if they didn't reply at all. I was taught many years ago that if you can't say anything nice/useful then to say nothing at all.  Something similar could well be applied to this list.  I must say that some respondants are very helpful; and I thank them.  Leave these simple questions to such people.  Indeed it seems surprising that some exteremely experienced R users choose to reply to these basic messages at all; and it seem it is mostly these people who are rude.  I would have thought it might be better for them to concentrate on complex problems more suited to their skills and interests and leave the simple questions to more sympathetic souls.

Perhaps there is a case for two r help lists catering to basic and advanced questions? Certainly if the R community is serious about appealling to users outside advanced statisticians there is a need for a change of approach in r help and elsewhere.  Russ Ackoff identified much of the failure of management science as due to those who were 'mathematically sophisticated but conceptually naive' and much the same could be said for many in the R community.

Finally, let me once again thank those who have responded helpful to my queries in the past and ask them to continue in that vein; their assistance and effort is greatly appreciated.


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