[R] Protocol for answering basic questions

Robert Brown FM CEFAS r.g.brown at cefas.co.uk
Thu Dec 2 10:14:14 CET 2004

A very interesting document which certainly makes me understand the attituides on the r help list better. Perhaps it should be part of the protocol for submitting questions.

Certainly I hadn't realised before that politeness and technical knowledge were so widely accepted as mutually exclusive. Neither had I realised that rudeness was considered such a powerful motivational force for learning.  It is very sad to realise how much of a chore politeness is viewed by some people.  I was also very naive to think that some people answered questions as a way to return something to the community rather than purely for selfish reasons.  Long live misanthropy.  At least now I will be able to approach r help and other mailing lists with a more realistic attitude.

It is interesting to note that there is a widespread notion that many questions result from insufficient research by the questioner.  As someone with a serious interest in R who is new to the environment I can't stress enough that I have never seen a question that I thought was trivial and didn't deserve a reply.  Indeed in my position I often find the answers to these questions the most useful. Often I find myself spending hours searching for a solution to a problem that I know is simple, but which I just don't have the experience to find (R documentation can be cryptic, assumes a lot of knowledge of programming and is weak in addressing programming/data manipulation issues). When I do find the answer I invariably cry 'of course' and researching such questions independently is not a learning experience, just a pain.   I know an experienced user could answer such questions in seconds and surely r help is an appropriate forum to address these questions.   

I realise that many users are busy and don't want to be swamped with 'uninteresting' emails.  However, if there are so many of these 'basic' questions that r help is in danger of being swamped then there is clearly a need which should be addressed.  If there are only a few then what is the problem.  Let those prepared to answer do so and the others can just ignore them, but accept their utility.   

-----Original Message-----
From: Greer, Braden (NIH/NCI) [mailto:greerb at mail.nih.gov]
Sent: 01 December 2004 17:05
To: Robert Brown FM CEFAS
Subject: RE: [R] Protocol for answering basic questions

Thanks for your challenge, Robert.  It's a breath of fresh air.

What you've astutely observed is plaguing the online forum community at
large, unfortunately.  And I believe it comes down to the original sin (of
which I too suffer) of human pride.  Folks have written extensive documents
(http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html) detailing how to dance
around the egos in the online forums (while I appreciate their efforts to
write this--it's unfortunate that it had to be written).  The dogma of help
forums is counterproductive and a bit childish.  Perhaps your words will
make some think for a minute.

Braden Greer

-----Original Message-----
From: Robert Brown FM CEFAS [mailto:r.g.brown at cefas.co.uk] 
Sent: Wednesday, December 01, 2004 11:46 AM
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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