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?