The nature of advice on email discussion lists

Steve Simon


I participate on several email discussion lists, and someone complained a bit about the advice he was getting. “So my question is if this forum is open for people like me? Can I ask questions and get advice without being patronised?” Here’s what I wrote in response.

You get what you pay for, and since the advice here is free, that should tell you something. You can’t get complex answers to difficult questions by email. The best you can hope for on a list like this is being pointed in the right direction. If we get a bit partonizing at times, please understand that we are doing this on our own time and at our own expense.

There are lots of people who can provide more detailed answers for a fee. My fee is $175 per hour, but you can probably find someone who is a bit cheaper than me. There are hundreds of us out there. My purpose in mentioning this is not to solicit business, but rather to point out that you have an excellent alternative to free advice if you have the budget.

If you don’t want to spend that kind of money and you are finding the advice here to be not that helpful, you can raise a plea like you have done above, or you can try to phrase your questions differently, or you can ignore the advice that you find partonizing.

But the previous emailer raised a very serious and important point. You are in an area that is very complex and it may be a bad idea to continue to seek advice for free. It may seem like patronizing to point out that you may be out of your depth, but I’m sure it was intended as a helpful nudge.

When I offer advice on a list like this, I always feel a but guilty because I don’t take the time to ask some background questions and I don’t try to totally understand the context of the problem. I also don’t provide enough details in many of my answers.

That’s just the nature of advice on a list like this. No one is going to invest hours of time without compensation. We do get some non-monetary compensation, of course, such as the thrill of an intellectual challenge, but it doesn’t pay the light bills. The quality of advice I offer to paying clients is substantially better than the advice I offer here, but the advice I provide here is sometimes helpful and it is certainly a bargain at $0 per hour.

I do wish you the best of luck with your project. I have not offered any answers to your questions earlier because you are already getting better advice than I could provide. Seriously! You have some of the rock stars of Statistics offering you advice and I’ve learned a lot from reading their comments.

You can find an earlier version of this page on my original website.