Be as provocative as you wish, but back your opinions with substance

Blogs, by their very nature, tend to be provocative, especially those that are written by industry leaders (sometimes called “thought leaders”). Opinions are often expressed with passion. This is certainly true of my blog. In fact, I tend to communicate in this way in all venues (blog posts, articles, books, presentations, classes, and even conversation over lunch). This seems appropriate. It is not appropriate, however, whether or not you’re communicating provocatively, to state opinions without substance. In other words, be as passionate as you please, but say something meaningful—something you can back up with solid reason and validate with evidence. I’m committed to this form of communication. If you ever catch me expressing opinions that are not well reasoned or that lack evidence, you should challenge me. And if you disagree with something that I say, by all means take me on, but do so thoughtfully. I don’t respond to emotional attacks that lack substance. State what you object to, why you object to it, and then back it up with reason and evidence. This is the only type of discourse that will get us anywhere.

People are sometimes offended by my opinions. More often than not, the people who take offense work for a company whose products or services I have criticized, or are loyal to them for other reasons. I know that criticism of something that you care about feels like an attack and that it is our natural response to lash out emotionally. Just as I put myself out there every day by stating opinions or producing work that are available for public critique, however, any vendor who produces software or services is similarly exposed. Public discourse and critique (both positive and negative) is a powerful means to improve the quality of what we do. I critique the business intelligence industry, not as an outsider, but as a committed insider who strongly believes in what we’re doing—so much that I’ve dedicated my professional life to improving it.

When people react to things that I say, I try to respond with substance, whether or not their reaction contained substance, as long as they made an honest effort to explain themselves. There is a threshold, however, below which I won’t respond at all. Anyone who thoughtlessly and cowardly posts a quick anonymous jab doesn’t deserve a response. I resist the juvenile temptation of schoolyard taunts. (By the way, you won’t find any examples of this type of comment on my blog, because on those rare occasions when they appear, I routinely delete them.) Vendors that try to suppress me by using political pressure to censor my work find that such attempts have no effect at all. (I currently publish my blog and most of my articles through my own organization, rather than through a publication that is financed by money that comes from BI vendors, to remove anyone’s financial interests from having control over my work.)

Just as our government leaders often get bogged down in unproductive bickering, we in the business intelligence industry (or any industry, for that matter) are prone to the same. Nothing good comes of this. We are better than this—or should be. Let’s make good use of our powerful minds to think critically. Only when we do this will we build a business intelligence industry that deserves its name.

3 Comments on “Be as provocative as you wish, but back your opinions with substance”

By Tim Graham. March 12th, 2007 at 4:47 pm


Keep up the good work Stephen. I have always found your articles to be backed up with good reasoning.

By chris. March 17th, 2007 at 9:17 am

When you taught at Haas, I was fairly skeptical of some of the claims you made, and you graciously agreed with me on some things (colors can be ordered spectrally, for example). We, your readers, will do our best to “keep you honest” and hopefully we can be civil when all sides have reasonable justification for a given position.

We can aspire that we shall not be overcome by glaring omissions in reasoning.

By Stephen Few. March 17th, 2007 at 10:21 am


Nice to hear from you. If memory serves me right, you didn’t hesitate to challenge aspects of what I taught. Far too often when someone challenges something that I advocate, the argument is on the level of “Well, I just don’t agree.” I remember that you were a refreshing exception to this. Your objections were thoughtful, which always pleases me in a student.

Just to head off any possible confusion, let me clarify my position about the spectral ordering of colors. I don’t remember our conversation in particular (a sign of middle age), but I do have a clear opinion about using color to encode a quantitative range of values, which I assume that I expressed when we spoke about this. People do not naturally perceive a rainbow assortment of hues that has been ordered according the the actual values of their wavelengths (that is, arranged spectrally) as seqential. If you rearrange the hues into an arbitrary order and ask people to put them in spectral order, most people will not be able to do it. Only people who have memorized the spectral order (for example, people trained in the arts and scientists who deal with visual perception) are able to accurately complete this task. People can memorize any sequence of hues that has been assigned to represent a sequence of quantitative values (for example, from low revenues to high revenues), but why force them to do so when a sequence of increasing intensities of a single hue (for example, from white through progressively darker shades of gray until you reach pure black) can be naturally perceived as a sequence of quantitative values without training?

As you can see, and no doubt observed in class, I do my best to head off misunderstandings. If you meant something different by your statement that “colors can be ordered spectrally” and I have responded inappropriately, please clarify your meaning.

And to head off another possible misunderstanding by readers, I want to mention that I still teach in the MBA program in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. I cherish this opportunity, largely because it puts me in touch with exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful people like you, Chris.

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog.

Be well,