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I know why I ask questions -- to learn and to get help with problems I'm struggling with. And I have been incredibly impressed with the Stack Exchange community's knowledge, eloquence, and responsiveness. When I post a question, it almost always gets some response within 10 minutes. It's like having a bunch of statisticians and mathematicians hanging out at a water cooler to which I can walk around the corner when I get stuck.

I am not surprised that some of my questions get answered. But I am (wonderfully) surprised that they almost ALL get answered, and almost immediately. What motivates enough people to spend enough time on this site is that there is almost always someone with specialized statistics training willing to write up and answer the question of a stranger -- often having to parse through the ill-formed/vague questions of beginners who may not know enough to know how to word a question. Even if you're an expert in the subject matter, it still takes time to write your thoughts and develop examples.

One explanation is real-world reputation, but so many people use aliases that I don't think that can explain much. I imagine some people get paid to answer, but I doubt that can be much of it. There is probably an intrinsic joy to teaching for some, but many of you are teachers by profession anyway. Is it truly altruism? (in the informal sense of the word) Is it about building and being part of a community?

I am very appreciative of this site and the people who answer questions. I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

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    $\begingroup$ Let me add something: I think most of my surprise comes because beginner questions are allowed, and thus I would have imagined there is a far greater number of question askers than people qualified to answer questions. $\endgroup$
    – OctaviaQ
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly beginner questions are easy enough to answer that I don't think being outnumbered is the problem. $\endgroup$
    – Fomite
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ Many of the answers given below resonate with me but generally speaking I am not so sure whether I (or you) really know what motivates me to do anything. Received wisdom within psychology is that we don't, even when we really feel that we do. $\endgroup$
    – Gala
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 11:32

10 Answers 10

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For me, there are three real reasons I end up answering questions:

  1. Something that could probably called professional pride. This is my job, and I'm an academic. I'm supposed to help contribute to learning and knowledge in my chosen field.
  2. It keeps my mind sharp. I'm away from my colleagues a great deal of the time, and for awhile I found myself in something of a bubble. CV...lets me walk amongst the data folk from time to time.
  3. Selfishness. I may one day have to read a paper written by someone who asked a question here - I'd rather read a methods section that doesn't make me cry.
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Well, I use my real name, and consulting is what I do, so that's a little bit of it.

I like answering questions. It keeps me thinking - or sometimes gets me thinking about something in a new way.

If I ask questions (and I do) and get answers (and I do), then I feel it is my fair part to answer questions where I can.

I like seeing my reputation number increase. :-).

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    $\begingroup$ I think you gave the best answer. It's just fun. (Sure enough, EpiGrad's and Peter's reason are totally valid and I probably follow them also, but more than anything I simply like this) $\endgroup$
    – usεr11852
    Commented Apr 6, 2013 at 2:48
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I always use my real name in fora like this. I see doing so as an honesty and integrity issue, plus I have as part of my role description to promote myself and my employer as up to speed with modern statistical practice and this is a small part of that.

Why do I answer?

1) I discovered the site when I had a couple of questions myself and quickly got very useful answers. A few weeks later I decided I should put back in some of what I got out - it's only fair to contribute. I empathised with people struggling over questions, and saw a few cases where I could help. Straightforward empathy and ethical duty to do something good for others.

2) Once I started answering, I quickly found how useful it was for me as a form of professional development. Answering even "easy" questions (is there such a thing? nearly every one has interesting philosophical implications if taken seriously) forces me to think things through a bit more clearly than is sometimes the case in my fast-paced applied world; and revisit the odd text or two that I thought I'd learnt and understood but needed refreshing on. There are many more statisticians here to hold me to account than in my normal job, and I can feel my understanding and skills improving.

3) I think the reputation and badges system is well designed and frankly slightly addictive.

In summary - stack exchange has some of the addictive power of facebook, with much greater intellectual stimulation, many chances to learn, chances to help some people out, and hopefully reduce a few bad mistakes in published science.

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    $\begingroup$ Very well put. I have had similar experiences in trying to answer easy (looking) questions. (I'm still working on some of them... :-) $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ I find it very interesting that your questions were answered by people with low reputations on this site. It goes to show that reputation and badges are not everything; the size and diversity of the community are highly meaningful and valuable. I hope the people who answered your questions read this reply and recognize themselves and what they have accomplished for you, and that it encourages them to keep contributing. We all value that. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Where else will I get achievement points now I no longer playing World of Warcraft? :) $\endgroup$
    – Michelle
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 18:23
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+1 to all the answerers. I think all of these reasons play a role for me--at least somewhat. The one point I would like to make is how much I've learned from this site and the CV community. Of course, I've learned a lot by reading questions and answers posted by others. But, although I'm only good enough to answer the easy questions, I've really learned a lot by answering them. Hunting down webpages and pdf's, looking things up in my textbooks, and figuring out how to explain something clearly has led me to solidify and deepen my understanding of these issues that I find deeply fascinating. I also enjoy answering questions, and feeling like my statistical abilities and knowledge (such as they are...) are contributing something useful to the world in one more little way.

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I share many of the reasons for answering questions with the others given here - especially that of keeping sharp. But I'll add an extra one that actually got me started on this site in the first place. I'm not the world's greatest programmer, and found Stack Overflow to be a wonderful resource for answering my questions. I felt it was right to "give something back" but obviously couldn't contribute over there. Answering on CV "balances out" all the help I get on SO.

If you find CV is really helpful, perhaps consider given back on the SE site in your area of expertise?

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Nice suggestion. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ +1 exactly my logic $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 12:40
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I think there's a mix of things but I'll mention a few motivations:

1) being known in the places I work/have worked as someone who knows a fair bit of statistics means I spend/spent a lot of time answering statistics questions anyway. At least for the common questions, I can instead point people here - and in the place of answering those questions, carry my share by providing answers here too.

2) I particularly like the idea of a searchable, permanent repository of questions and answers, especially one where the questions get edited and clarified and the answers often improve over time - it means when I come up with a good answer, it doesn't just 'die' when I finish solving one person's problem, like it tends to when someone asks me a question in person. The combination of convenience and permanence makes it worthwhile to come back and clarify a paragraph in response to a followup comment, or add some clarifying picture, or generalize an answer slightly so it also answers another question, or covers the question in a way the asker mightn't have even understood enough to ask.

And I find that my better answers, ones I have crafted and reworked, tend to influence the way I write my explanations elsewhere. My written explanations of concepts slowly improve.

3) I learn from just reading other answers, and from answering questions myself (checking details in a paper or running a quick analysis or simulation I don't normally do changes a lot of stuff I sort of know into stuff I actually know). I may have been a statistician for a long time, but there's still plenty I don't know, or don't know as well as I should. Among other things, it's a neat way to learn about things I didn't know I didn't know.

4) I like that there's an opportunity for me to ask questions, should I need it - and the bigger the community gets, the more value it's likely to have for me.

5) When I get bored, spending 10 or even 20 minutes writing an answer is notionally more rewarding than getting another coffee.

6) If you like statistics, it's just interesting, you know? A reasonable fraction of the questions are simply fun to think about.

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I, as @Peter Flom, also use my real name but I have similar motivations as @EpiGrad where I guess 1 & 2 are the ones I agree the most with since I'm not sure that those that really should visit the site do that (yes, I have recommended the site to many of my peers but I don't think I've seen any of them...).

I agree with Peter where the answers keep me thinking. I like to look up areas and dig into things that I think I might need to know in more detail in the future. I also get a great kick out of people voting up my answer or taking their time to comment on any flaws. I find often very interesting to see how my answers are judged by real pro's.

I guess the initial drive for me to answer was to gain points so that I could give bounties and so that my questions perhaps appeared more interesting when I've gained "community trust".

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Quite simply, I come here to get help, and feel that I should pay it forward to the best of my (often meager) ability. It also seems like some of the really stellar statisticians here either aren't familiar with or don't want to answer really basic econometrics questions (i.e.: causal inference from observational data), so maybe I can contribute to somewhat in that arena.

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    $\begingroup$ (+1) I am grateful that you contribute your expertise to our site. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Commented Apr 19, 2013 at 17:44
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Besides all the the more substantial reasons that are given above, of which I share most, if not all:

Sometimes, it feels efficient to help: Having the answer 90% ready in the form of parts of slides that I have used in teaching or an exercise I have asked implies that I can sometimes answer questions somewhat quickly.

Second, I get inspiration here for my own teaching, as questions are sometimes nice questions for my problem sets.

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    $\begingroup$ & the other way around: I often use explanations / examples / figures I have created here when I develop materials for a new lecture. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 17:38
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Looking back at my career, I realize the best math course I took was a Problem Seminar course. In that course, we were given ten problems to solve per week. During a good week, I could solve maybe 8 of 10 problems. That taught me how to solve a problem without a textbook context to hint as to how to find a solution. This site does the same thing within the context of statistics. That is, practice makes perfect, and if one can increasingly better answer arbitrary questions, then one has increased the ability to use statistics in one's work.

This differs from a Problem Seminar because creative answers can be downvoted here, and there is an overlay of conventionality applied here that is particular to statistics. On the plus side, even when the insular thinking of those who review answers is apparent, one at least gleans the boundaries of conventional statistical thinking. That is important for writing multidisciplinary work in that it indicates which concepts should be avoided as they mean something else in other fields. For example, a "sample" for statistics is not a blood "sample" for medicine, so one winds up using alternative concepts more generally, e.g., dataset instead of "sample."

Finally, answering a question here is like taking an oral certification exam as a single candidate being reviewed by a dozen specialists. In such a setting, the question that the specialists have is, "Is this candidate one of us or not." So it matters HOW one answers a question, i.e., like a specialist statistician or NOT. Either way, it is a profound learning experience.

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    $\begingroup$ The first paragraph answers the question: if one can increasingly better answer arbitrary questions, then one has increased the ability to use statistics in one's work Otherwise this is a bit of a grumble recycling comments that will be familiar to long-term members here. Speaking for myself naturally, but possibly for many others too, I have never downvoted or even dissented from any post of yours because it was creative, unconventional or from a seeming outsider. That would indeed be puerile. I have sometimes disagreed with you or (I fear) failed to follow your point, different issues. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Commented Mar 1 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ I am a bit of an outsider here as a geographer with precisely zero formal qualifications in statistics but don't recollect any flak or snide or snarky remarks on that score from anyone who knew about it. (Some flak I have received for more usual reasons.) I've found that ideas here almost always get whatever respect they do (or don't) deserve. I will say here that I think CV is a much friendlier community than Stack Overflow, for example. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Commented Mar 1 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @NickCox My overall experience here has been positive. There is insular thinking within any specialty. This is not flak, snide, or snarky, and is only typically pertinent to statistics. It has to do with a lack of multidisciplinarity, and has consequences. Trivial example, I did a quantitative biology submission on arXiv that took minutes using LaTeX. The medical journal took three months of backbreaking typesetting work to correct the proofs and they had never seen a LaTeX file, ever. Fortunately, one reviewer was a knowledgeable medical physicist, and contributed wisely to the text. $\endgroup$
    – Carl
    Commented Mar 1 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ @NickCox My spell checker for the above didn't recognize the words "multidisciplinarity," "LaTeX," and "@NickCox." It was not flak, snide, or snarky, just uninformed, so I added them to my dictionary. $\endgroup$
    – Carl
    Commented Mar 1 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ @NickCox See my answer to the so-called urn paradox in which I identify that as conditional convergence. Notice that there is no paradox beyond the bogus expectation that a conditional convergence is unique when the sequence of summation is altered. Notice that I got zero votes for that actual answer. I had a very hard time explaining that there is no paradox, some of the comments I got were quite negative. So what? I'm a big boy, I can take it. $\endgroup$
    – Carl
    Commented Mar 1 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ Hard to know what you're intending that example to convey. Your post came >4 years after the thread started. There were no downvotes and whatever comments may have been made on your post have disappeared. Sorry, but that is not the kind of question that interests me and (not the same thing) not one on which I have particular expertise, so I have no scope to evaluate the merits of your answer and assess how far it deserves more credit than it got. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Commented Mar 2 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @NickCox You would have to look at the deleted answers to see just how contentious this question was. This isn't about me, particularly, but there was a lot of authoritarianism on display, a lot like peacocks showing their feathers. My post came >4 years later because I never forgot the nonsense that went on, had to think about it, and when I came to a definitive answer, went back and added it. $\endgroup$
    – Carl
    Commented Mar 2 at 23:30

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