[R] Protocol for answering basic questions

Fowler, Mark FowlerM at mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca
Wed Dec 1 18:42:28 CET 2004

Although I agree that sometimes a response to a question seems rude, and
some degree of arrogance asserts itself from time to time (actually appears
to cycle), I don't see what in the nature of the commercial S environment
rectifies this problem. I've been using S since the late 80's, R for less
than a year. The only substantive difference in obtaining assistance for
[statistics-related] problems, that I've perceived, would simply be the
volume of questions. R has a couple of orders of magnitude on S in this
respect, restricting the observation to the period since the last change in
ownership of S (previously S had much more question traffic). But other than
the volume, I really don't see a difference. The only circumstances for
which I've noted an advantage of S over R in terms of responding to
questions are concerned with programming the interface and server
applications, where the problems may often require the knowledge of S
development staff to resolve (or not), and they are pretty good about
intercepting questions that might better have been directed to them. 

If one considers the number of times we see a question we feel was frivolous
for lack of effort, versus the number of times we see a response we feel was
unwarranted for lack of consideration, is there much difference, or are we
maybe as close to the line as we could reasonably expect to be.

>	Mark Fowler
>	Marine Fish Division
>	Bedford Inst of Oceanography
>	Dept Fisheries & Oceans
>	Dartmouth NS Canada
>	fowlerm at mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca

-----Original Message-----
From: Robert Brown FM CEFAS [mailto:r.g.brown at cefas.co.uk] 
Sent: December 1, 2004 12:46 PM
To: r-help at stat.math.ethz.ch
Subject: [R] Protocol for answering basic questions

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 question!  ers.

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

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

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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