Hot take: the language “wars” are helpful. It’s surprising that the #rstats community, so attentive to the needs of beginners misses this.

Bellum omnium contra omnes. A liberal paraphrase: “human existence is war”. So wrote Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, a work studied in any introduction to philosophy or political thought. While Hobbes’ broader point is about government, I’m more interested in epistemology. For humans, “war” is a useful framework. Consider how martial language permeates our vernacular:

  • “I’ll ping them again next week.”
  • “So-and-so marshalled an argument.”
  • “No, that’s out-of-scope.
  • “I’ve been in their crosshairs all week.”
  • “The news was a bombshell.
  • “The project was a dud.
  • “He stuck to his guns.

Each of these borrows from the realities of war. It’s almost impossible to narrate or describe an exchange of conflicting ideas without the war framework. “War” is how humans create meaning and understanding. War is pedagogy.

What does this have to do with the so-called “programming wars”? Take R vs. Python. By my lights, disparaging the partisans of this “war” has become a badge of elitist self-congratulation, a boast that the person has transcended the earthy, absurd, and childish “war” and achieved true enlightenment.1

Here’s the problem: the anti-war chorus downvotes and shames the creators of any “R vs. Python” content. And guess what? That stuff is really helpful for beginners! It was certainly helpful to me. Like most new programmers, I arrived with a full-time job and zero computer science background. When I first typed print("Hello World!") I half-expected it print to my actual printer. Without simplistic infographics and blogs like “Here’s how/why R is better” or “Here’s why Python is better for this”, I would never have found a place to jump in and start learning. I had neither the time nor knowledge for subtlety–I needed war. The war makes the content accessible; the war shamers do not.

In sum: yes, war content is helpful, but yea, it might not be the healthiest. It certainly isn’t the most “accurate.” But as a novice trying to find my footing, I figured out that I wanted to join the #rstats side. And three years later I get to write code for work and for play, and thats in some part thanks to the war.

  1. This is not true of influential tool-makers like Hadley, Bob Rudis, Wes Mckinney, and Jake VanderPlas. In fact, it’s not even true of most people.