Summer Camp for Social Scientists! Software Edition

RcodeThe subject of statistical software fluency is an oft discussed topic round the brown bag table. The dominance of SPSS in social work has been discussed many times, sometimes controversially. Here at ICPSR I’ve heard a few things about software, my favourite being that number eight of the fabled ten commandments of the summer program was something to the effect of ‘don’t be a software snob.’ Also amusing is that this commandment has been wildly violated by many here this summer.

It’s true all stats programs have their strengths and weaknesses. However, it must be said that some programs have shorter ranges and shallower depths than others. For example, SPSS and Stata often fall short in terms of graphical analysis and presentation. Each program has its strengths as well. In my scaling class this week, it was mentioned that the only reliable routine for unidimensional unfolding analysis is in SPSS. This was the first time SPSS was cited as having superior capabilities than other programs. From what I understand, only one of the courses here utilizes SAS, and another utilizes the HLM program, while the rest rely primarily on Stata and R.

In my work here, I have mainly been focusing on becoming fluent in R, although I have learned a bit of JMP and expanded my Stata skills. The R statistical computing environment is pretty incredible. Its breadth and depth are currently unparalleled. Many statistical techniques are simply not available in any other program. Even though it has a reputation for being difficult to use, I find the logic of the R language to be extremely straightforward. It does take longer to learn than other stats syntax for the non-programmer. But the way R forces an understanding of the moving parts of model estimation actually encourages greater understanding of the underlying math and logic to the statistics that far outweighs any labour costs. R has its more direct downsides of course, like any program. Tonight I ran into a parametric distribution that R did not support and I had to switch back to Stata. Also, I imagine that coding one’s work only in R poses challenges in terms of collaboration, particularly for fields that are dominated by other statistical programs.

This afternoon, I caught one of my professors on the way out of class, and he stressed that one should ‘become bilingual.’ Indeed, learning programming languages is just like learning regular languages: more can very rarely be a bad thing.

One response to “Summer Camp for Social Scientists! Software Edition”

  1. David Rothwell says:

    Thanks, Anne. Very relevant for me as I work on the asset poverty study using complex survey data – organizing data and running descriptive analysis in SAS; multivariate models in STATA. This type of workflow is common for me.
    The ‘becoming bilingual comment’ got me thinking…
    In social work where < 30% of students conduct a quantitative analysis, I would argue that we have a problem of software illiteracy. Illiterate researchers do not know the syntax behind any program (in SPSS knowledge of syntax is not necessary). Surely, fear of math/statistics deters some from quantitative research, but I also think fear of software programming plays a role. Given this, how to overcome software illiteracy in social work?

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