The Gullibility of BI Professionals

Is the ability to think critically too much to expect of business intelligence (BI) professionals? How about BI professionals who support institutions of higher learning? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect high levels of critical thinking from them? Unfortunately, a recent experience has called this into question.

I’m currently in Austin, Texas where I’ll be teaching one of my public workshops this week. On Sunday, I taught a visual data analysis course here on the campus of the University of Texas at the annual conference of HEDW (Higher Education Data Warehousing). I cherish opportunities to support educational institutions. I believe in the power of education to improve the lives of individuals and to make the world a better place. I spent eight hours with 65 wonderful people who support decision making, mostly at universities, through the use of business intelligence technologies. You can imagine my shock and chagrin when in the evening I attended the opening keynote presentation that turned out to consist ultimately of a parlor show on par with psychic reading.

Mac Fulfer who worked for many years as an attorney, is now a face reader. What is face reading?

We all understand the importance of facial expression in communication. We know the meaning of a smile or a frown, but few realize that a face is a living record and personality profile rolled into one. Each face reflects in its structure and lines its owner’s personal history, mental attitudes, character traits, intimacy requirements, work ethic, personal preferences, and much more. A face can be read like a map that points the way to a deeper understanding of yourself and of every person you meet.

Here are a few examples of the insights that you can read in a person’s face:

And what does this have to do with business intelligence? An answer was provided when Mac Fulfer was introduced, which I’ll paraphrase:

Business intelligence is about reading data. Faces are just another form of data.

I hope that our reading of data is more trustworthy and meaningful than Fulfer’s reading of faces.

I approached the evening with an open mind, assuming that Fulfer and his content had been carefully vetted. I maintained an open mind for about 45 minutes, as Fulfer laid a foundation for face reading by citing research into the meanings of specific expressions, including the work of Paul Ekman that focuses on the meanings of facial micro-gestures, on whom the television series “Lie to Me” is roughly based. I was already familiar with most of this work, which I find interesting. As it turned out, however, the evidence that Fulfer presented had no bearing on his own work. Unlike Ekman, who has done years of painstaking research to identify the meanings of specific micro-gestures in the face that reveal people’s thoughts and feelings, Fulfer doesn’t look for micro-gestures and he isn’t particularly concerned with peoples thoughts and feelings in the moment. Instead, he believes that our personalities and characters are written on our faces through physical features, much as a phrenologist of the 19th century believed that one’s psychological attributes could be discerned by feeling the bumps on a person’s head. As our personalities change, Fulfer believes that our brains direct the physical characteristics of our faces to change accordingly. Square vs. pointy jaws, squinty vs. round open eyes, and so on are all clear reflections of our souls. To illustrate, he showed us photos of himself as a young boy with big outwardly extended ears (a sign of independence) and pointed out that as his personality changed later in life, his ears moved back to lie flat against his head.

It was interesting that so much time was used to establish a scientific foundation for face reading, despite its irrelevance to Fulfer’s own version of the craft, especially given the fact that he stated in the beginning that the credibility of his work had not as yet been scientifically confirmed. He was careful to put this admission, however, into context by stating that before Newton the laws of gravity were not established. I desperately wanted to point out that, unlike gravity, which we experience every moment of our lives (excluding astronauts) and know to exist even if we don’t understand the scientific explanation, the fact that a high forehead is a sign of intelligence is not evident. I also wanted to ask why his notion that facial characteristics reflect our personalities continues to lack confirmation after all these years when it would be so easy to test. For instance, how difficult would it be to measure the IQs of people and see if intelligence correlates with the height of their foreheads?

The true nature of Fulfer’s work became evident when he had a few volunteers come up to the stage to have their faces read. That’s when the parlor-trick quality of his brand of face reading became clear. Just like psychic readers, Fulfer used the exact phrases that they might utter, to describe the volunteers. They went something like this:

Your low-hanging ear lobes tell me that you don’t accept everything that you’re told. Although you’re polite about it, you need to see the evidence for yourself. Only then will you accept it.

Now, what BI professional (or anyone else for that matter) is going to respond: “No, you’re wrong, I’m completely gullible; I believe everything I’m told without question.” Yet, to accept Fulfer’s assessment based on the shape of one’s ears would require a great deal of gullibility. I suspect that Fulfer is well aware of the irony and finds it amusing.

I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person in the room that found Fulfer’s parlor show unconvincing. I’m surprised, however, that HEDW’s speaker selection committee didn’t suspect this in advance and vet his credentials carefully. The fact that Fulfer regularly entertains at birthday parties and bar mitzvah’s might have clued them in, but even BI professionals in positions of leadership sometimes do dumb things.

In fact, to tie this more closely to the subject matter of this blog, I’ve observed that BI professionals routinely make dumb decisions when they buy the patter of software salespeople who, like hucksters at a carnival, extol the wonders of shiny spinning pie charts and dashboard gauges to present data effectively. They want to believe it, because those flashy charts look so fun and impressive. Wanting to believe it, they set their critical faculties aside and write checks for huge sums of money. Why would we expect decision support professionals to know better? It’s not like it really matters—right?

Take care,

14 Comments on “The Gullibility of BI Professionals”


By Andrew. April 17th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

“Just like psychic readers, Fulfer used the exact phrases that they might utter, to describe the volunteers.”

And if he keeps his face-readings vague and semi-flattering, he’ll always be right! Seriously: “Likes to control his own work pace and style” - who doesn’t?

“…I’ve observed that BI professionals routinely make dumb decisions when they buy the patter of software salespeople… They want to believe it, because those flashy charts look so fun and impressive.”

Many times decision-makers only know _that_ they need a BI solution; they don’t take any time to define what kind of BI solution they need, thus reducing their set of requirements for prospective vendors to “must be a BI solution”. This makes it easy for a salesperson to sell them something flashy; they have no idea whether Product A or Product B will meet their needs, but Product A certainly _looks_ better to the untrained eye.

By Adrian. April 17th, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Great article, Steve.

Appearances can be (and often are) deceiving. Very little can be taken at face value until a level of trust is built up. Unfortunately, BI professionals too often drink the Kool Aid and are not critical and/or independent enough.

By Peter Schmidt. April 17th, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Love it. Reminds me of the stage hypnotist from the UK TV series Little Britain who used to cheat when playing Scrabble with his elderly mother - “Look into my eyes, look into my eyes cuboardy is a word”!

Now that web cams and Kinect sensors are becoming more common it will only be a matter of time before somebody releases software that does sentiment analysis based on user expressions - I’m not joking - marketing guys would love this and let’s face it they’re even more gullible!

By Andrew. April 18th, 2012 at 7:50 am

@Peter Schmidt

Or, bringing it back to BI, it’s only a matter of time before somebody releases BI software that lets you use your Kinect to actually interact with the data using your real hands. I know it’s an absurd idea, but never underestimate how far a salesperson will go to impress a potential buyer.

Spin pie charts yourself! Knock tall 3D bars out of the way to see small 3D bars better! Go skiing on a 3D time-series plot of your company’s stock prices (double black diamonds all the way)! Nothing of real value would be added (in fact, poor visualization practices are likely to be encouraged even more), but think how easy it would be to sell something like this.

By Pete Z. April 19th, 2012 at 7:14 am

What if Fulfer were to marry face reading with data visualization… (for fun)

“I see from your round head and eyes that you prefer pie charts.”
“Your freckles and adult acne show you have a inclination for scatter plots.”
“The various red blotches on your face suggest you favor heat maps.”
“Your massive scar extending from your ear across your lower jawline speaks to your careless execution of line charts and trendlines.”

By Rob. April 26th, 2012 at 8:39 am

I’m surprised you didn’t walk out, it must have been tempting, or was the purpose of this opening session to act as a humourous ice-breaker to a serious conference?

By Stephen Few. April 26th, 2012 at 9:44 am

Rob,

When the presentation turned into a parlor show, I did walk out. Unfortunately, it was not meant as a joke. It was seriously absurd.

By Mike Smith. May 1st, 2012 at 7:39 am

Great blog. I think part of the issue is that there is a constant desire to be on the ‘cutting edge’ and technology, despite the fact that it’s really nothing new continues to be viewed as a ‘frontier’. Of course, it’s the single most obvious example of the growing capabilities of human beings, but it still shocks me, that often all it does take are a few flashy bar charts and a promise of a piece of technology being ‘new’ and ‘cutting edge’ and even the most cynical people begin to reach for their check books!

I think a similar phenomenon has resulted in the re-emergence of such things as face reading, or even NLP, which despite having not a shred of support, still finds its way into more management books, intelligence, or even investigative research books and courses than I can count. I guess as long as people are willing to suspend their disbelief, people will continue to spend money on paper tigers.

By Angel Willis. May 1st, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I enjoyed your article Steve. I find that BI vendors are easily able to convince executives to purchase their products through elementary sales techniques due to the lack of knowledge that executives often have about what a BI solution should be. A failure to clearly define the business requirements is usually due to the lack of technical research that has been conducted on the options for a business intelligence solution. Unfortunately pretty pictures wins the competition more often than not.

By Will. May 3rd, 2012 at 4:09 am

Steven - a great commentary as always. I am one of the ‘hucksters’ hawking a variety of BI tools, but as a data geek at heart try wherever possible to show people the importance of clarity in their visualisations over the latest 3D pictogram… But you are right - 3D shinies will continue to be held up as ‘innovation’ until organisations stop asking RFI questions like (and I quote directly from a recent question) “Can the tool provide a range of advanced visualisations (bar/line/pie charts, heatmaps, animations, 3D visualisations etc.)”. I’d love to answer that with “Our tool can provide the most effective visualisation for your data”, but it’s unlikely to win us many points.

By Timothy Moore. May 3rd, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Mr Few,

I attended HEDW and also your class. You must have attended a different Sunday night and Monday morning presentation then I did. Granted I was a bit skeptical when Mr. Fuler took the stage, and like you kept an open mind. Apparently, I listen a bit harder than you did and understood what Mr. Fuler was saying. The groundwork he laid fit very nicely into his presentation. His point was that characteristics of our faces give an indication of a person’s personality and can help us communicate with that person better. At no point did he say Face Reading was foolproof. It is meant to be a guide, not a hard, cold rule. I do agree with you that some BI Professional are gullible when it comes to software salesmen. This is mostly because they are well versed in the hard skills, but have little or no knowledge of the soft skills. Computer Science degrees are heavy on learning languages, algorithms, compilers, etc. Unless the student takes public speaking or something like it, they are totally unprepared for communicating and interacting with people after graduation. As I stated before, Face Reading is not a science. It is in fact a tool that can be used by BI professionals in their daily work. This includes getting an idea as to how much a salesperson believes what they are saying. Lastly, I was one of the 5 people that went forward for the “parlor-trick” demonstration. I purposefully remained as neutral with my face and body. Mr. Fuler’s reading of my face was entirely correct. I understand from your straight eyebrows that you need facts and take a logical approach to things. From your thin lips you don’t trust things easily. Perhaps you should read Mr. Fuler’s book and see how the data looks.

By Stephen Few. May 3rd, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Timothy,

We attended the same presentation by Mac Fulfer on Sunday evening, but we perceived it differently. People who are read by psychics also feel that the readings are correct, just as people believe that horoscopes are accurate. The readings consist of statements that anyone would find acceptable as descriptions of themselves. “I understand from your straight eyebrows that you need facts and take a logical approach to things” is an example of this. Who is going to respond, “No, you’re wrong, I accept anything that I’m told without any evidence no matter how illogical it seems.” The fact that you accepted this statement by Fulfer as evidence of his claims actually shows that his statement was not accurate. Apparently you do not need facts or logic to accept a statement as true. You want to believe Fulfer, otherwise your participation in the stage show and subsequent statements that Fulfer’s demonstration was convincing would appear foolish.

None of the scientifically-validated evidence related to the reading of facial micro-gestures or the meanings of particular facial expressions that Fulfer presented during the keynote Sunday evening have any relation to his version of face reading. If you believe otherwise, please provide an example. There is absolutely no evidence that Fulfer’s claims are accurate. Until evidence exists, which could easily be gathered through simple scientific investigation, why would you accept Fulfer’s claims as valid? Fulfer has been doing this for years. Why is there still no evidence of his claims? The reason is obvious. The evidence does not exist.

By David. May 11th, 2012 at 7:07 am

Interesting read. I’m surprised that people are able to fall for this so easily. Besides sounding like cold reading techniques, it also sounds alot like the old Phrenology.

By Mart. May 21st, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Interesting read. As a BI Consultant, I hope to be not so gullible :-P
Ever heard of the Barnum Effect, aka Forer Effect?
“We’ve got something for everyone”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnum_effect

English mentalist Derren Brown tested this effect, you can find it on Youtube..