A recent article in the New York Times extolls the virtues of the R statistical programming language. Better late than never, I suppose. I first discovered R in 1999, just as I began writing my dissertation. At the time, I used Matlab for all my computational needs. I still occasionally use Matlab when doing hardcore matrix algebra or numerically solving differential equations. I also sometimes use Mathematica to check my algebra or to solve equations when I’m feeling lazy (I think there are actually lots more possibilities but exploring these hasn’t been a priority), but mostly I now use R. When looking for a post-doc, one of my training goals was learning R. I certainly scored in that department by landing in the Center for Statistics in the Social Sciences at the University of Washington working with Mark Handcock, sharing an office with Steve Goodreau, and interacting with people life Adrian Raftery, Peter Hoff, and Kevin Quinn, I learned a lot about R. I’d like to think that I saw the writing on the wall. Mostly though, I think I liked the idea of free, open-source, state-of-the-art numerical software.
I use R in many of the classes I teach, including Demography and Life History Theory, Applied Bayesian Methods in the Social Sciences, Data Analysis in the Anthropological Sciences, and our NICHD-funded Workshop in Formal Demography. While I don’t expect the students to learn it, I also use R to make most of the figures I show in slides in other classes like Evolutionary Theory, Environmental Change and Emerging Infectious Disease, and even The Evolution of Human Diet. My colleague Ian Robertson also teaches his quantitative classes in R. Anthropology is also very lucky to have an academic technology specialist, Claudia Engel, with a strong interest in supporting both faculty and student use of R. The Human Spatial Dynamics Laboratory has a growing list of R resources for student (and other’s) use. My lab site will soon host all of our R material for the summer workshops as well as my R package demogR.
I sometimes wonder if other anthropologists are learning R. I’m sure Steve’s students get some R up at UW. But is there anyone else out there? Perhaps this is one of the great comparative advantages we can give our students here at Stanford. Since the New York Times says it’s cool, it must be true.