R’s increasing popularity. Should we care?

May 17, 2012

(This article was first published on Quantum Forest » rblogs, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Some people will say ‘you have to learn R if you want to get a job doing statistics/data science’. I say bullshit, you have to learn statistics and learn to work in a variety of languages if you want to be any good, beyond getting a job today coding in R.

R4stats has a recent post discussing the increasing popularity of R against other statistical software, using citation counts in Google Scholar. It is a flawed methodology, at least as flawed as other methodologies used to measure language popularities. Nevertheless, I think is hard to argue against the general trend: R is becoming more popular. There is a deluge of books looking at R from every angle, thousands of packages and many jobs openings asking for R experience, which prompts the following question:

Should you/I/we care?

First answer: no. I try to use the best tool for the job; which often happens to be R but it can also be Python, SAS or Fortran. It is nice to be able to use the same tool, say R, across a range of problems, but there are occasions when it feels like using Excel for statistics: one can do it, but one knows that it isn’t a great idea. I know good statisticians that prefer R, SAS or Genstat; the tool doesn’t make you good in the same way that I could buy a Rickenbacker 4001 and I wouldn’t play like Geddy Lee.

Second answer: yes. Popularity attracts good people, who develop good packages, making new techniques available first in R. This doesn’t matter if you are into plain vanilla analyses (there is nothing wrong with this, by the way). Popularity + open source means that the system has been ported to a diversity of computer systems. Need R in a supercomputer? Done. R in a mac? Done. R for your strange operating system, for which there are C and Fortran compilers? Download it and compile it. Done. There is also the ‘I’m not crazy aspect’: other people take the software seriously.

Gratuitous picture: Firescapes II, night illuminated by bonfire (Photo: Luis).

I find people learning R because of ‘job opportunities’ irritating, in the same way that people learn javascript or java only to get a job. Give me any time people that learn R—or any other language for that matter—because they want to, because they are curious, because they want to share their discoveries with other people. Again, it is the difference between someone competent and someone great at what they do; great analysts are very much better than competent ones.

In the comments for the R4stats post there is a reference to R fanboys. Are R fanboys worse than fanboys of other statistical systems? In some respects the answer is yes, because many R users are also open source & open science supporters. Personally, I support both concepts, although I’m not dogmatic about them: I do buy some proprietary software and often can’t provide every detail about my work (commercially sensitive results). Maybe we are looking for a deeper change: we want to democratize statistics. We push for R not necessarily because it is intrinsically a better language, but because we can envision many people doing statistics to better understand the world around us and R is free. Anyway, I would prefer you call me a Python fanboy with split R personality.

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