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The Net Takeaway: R doesn't want "newbies"... and that's a mistake.


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R doesn't want "newbies"... and that's a mistake. · 12/08/2004 02:33 PM, Analysis

The R Project for Statistical Computing team has an impressive mailing list called R-Help… but recently, the classic “we don’t want to answer boring frequent questions, we want esoteric questions” split has come. I’ve commented before on how rude this group is compared to, say, SPSSX-L, but over the last two months, things have really gotten snarky.

It starts here in November with a pointer to yet another article that, yet again, reflects the common saying among analysts: R would be great if it weren’t so stuck on making the easy hard, and the hard impossible (but still open source).

From there, the discusson meandered into “there’s a price to pay for learning powerful tools, and people should suck it up” and “stats that are too easy become mis-interpreted”.

And then… A posting entitled Reasons not to answer very basic questions in a straightforward way. It yet again says that folks should read the docs, they are very detailed; read the FAQs, make sure the question hasn’t already been answered; Search the list, see if the question was asked already.

Yet another post which ignores the fact the the faqs and documentation are written by and for statistical programmers, not users. If you don’t understand the phrasing in the manuals, and the FAQs are written even more obtusely, and the list is full of rude answers saying “we aren’t going to answer this”, then how, pray tell, is the person going to get their question answered? You almost have to give “proof” that you’ve done your search: “The faq says blah, but that doesn’t make sense; someone asked this in 2003 and the list said it was a new feature; the manual on page 203 defines it as an edge case… ok, so I wasted my time, now can you help me?

So, this leads to long threads about excuses as to why the utter rudeness, lack of civility, and “screw ‘em if they can’t take it” approach is completely appropriate in a “high traffic” list. I completely disagree, and it embarrasses me every time I see tenured professors and 20 year analytic vets posting cringe-evoking, rude responses.

Now, in December, a new thread extends the first: Protocol for answering basic questions

More of the same complaints and excuses, requests to split into an r-basic-help and r-advanced-help, and more rhetoric.

Don’t get me wrong: I admire many of the people on the R team: they are geniuses who share their code, and many are far smarter than I can ever hope to be. But they suck as people-persons… and they do the R Project irreparable harm with this behavior.

But think of it this way: Lots of smart stats guys are using R, but even they admit that some parts still suck (usability, gui integration, large-data limitation). The super-programmers who could fix these issues haven’t ever heard of R. Why? Not popular enough. But let’s let a few novices play with it, and they are showing it to others, and suddenly, the super-progs say “oh, you can fix your memory problems by doing this”. Why? Because they want credit too, so a project with a larger audience is more likely to get their efforts.

Look, not everyone is egotistical; this is a broad brush. But the power games on the R-Help list, from a psychologist’s perspective, are pretty transparent. These people can be so nice in person, but on the list, the lack of professionalism is disappointing. And yes, courtesy is a part of professionalism, in my (and many others’) book.

If the only way to make sure that R grows is to split the list, then split it, and volunteers will do the right thing to help out. And let’s try to make better, more realistic docs. Putting my money where my mouth is, I guess it’s time to write my “R for people who are smart enough to use SPSS but not matrix math” book. O’Reilly, here I come.

So, I don’t want to see quotes like this (find it, its in one of the PDF docs on the site): “Because R is free, users have no right to expect attention, on the R-help list or elsewhere, to queries. Be grateful for whatever help is given.” Instead, how about: “We will help as best we can, but we are all volunteers. Be sure to do some of your own legwork first; things move better that way and without some prep, you probably won’t understand the answer you get”.

And I really think its time for the R leadership to take a stance on whether they want a vanity project, or to make something which can change the world. I think R can be one of those standards in the world of analysis, something you automatically turn to. Its the efforts of the past which make me believe that, but its the efforts of the future which will make it real. So, come on, do a mitzvah, help out a newbie when you see their question, OK?

PS: interestingly enough, people who can’t take 2 seconds to explain something can spend 10 times as much time discussing what should become R’s Mascot, in a thread starting here. Sigh.

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