JL Computer Consultancy

Is criticism “unprofessional”?

Mar 2005


There seem to be two ways to improve the quality of Oracle-related information on the Internet. The first is to generate high-quality material; the second is to blow the whistle on low-quality information.

If I check the datestamps on the files I’ve loaded on to my website, it looks like I’ve been trying to do the former for about eight years, and looking at my email archives I seem to have posted about 8,000 items in the direction of the comp.databases.oracle newsgroups in the same period. Alas, things aren’t improving much. I have noticed a small increase in the number of published ‘test cases’ over the last few months – but the rate of change is very slow.

In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that it might be more appropriate to try the alternative option and make more of a fuss about the low-quality stuff – in particular low-quality material generated by persistent offenders who claim to be experts.  

I’ve had several email messages thanking me for this, and two which questioned the approach.

One email asked why I was only making a fuss about Don Burleson when there were plenty of other offenders on the Internet – the answer to that is simple, Don Burleson isn’t the only offender I have criticized, or will criticize. But in the past my comments have been restricted to the newsgroups rather than being published as articles on my website, so perhaps they have not been so noticeable.

The other email put forward the view that it was unprofessional to criticize other experts. I thought it would be worth looking at that claim a little more closely.

Before I begin, you might like to look at that statement from the opposite direction. Would it be professional to allow incorrect information to propagate around the Internet without trying to curb it in some way – and if a private correction has no effect, and if corrections declared on newsgroups and list servers have no effect, what should the next step be?


Let’s start with a role model – Richard Dawkins (internationally acclaimed professor at Oxford University) in a review of a book by Stephen J Gould (internationally acclaimed professor (deceased) of Harvard University):

“Wonderful Life” is a beautifully written and deeply muddled book. To make unputdownable an intricate, technical account of the anatomies of worms, and other inconspicuous denizens of a half-billion-year-old sea, is a literary tour de force. But the theory that Stephen Gould wrings out of his fossils is a sorry mess.

Dawkins then goes on to explain clearly and succinctly the flaws in Gould’s theory, and describes an approach that Gould could take to his analysis of the Burgess shale to justify (or re-think) his theories. Clearly, professionals doing ‘real science’ do consider it reasonable to criticize each other in public.

To give you a different perspective on the Dawkins/Gould relationship that may help you to realize that criticism and professional behavior can go together, here is another published quotation from Dawkins from a letter he sent to Gould on the topic of writing a public letter to explain why they ignore creationist invitations to debate:

... Such a letter would have great impact precisely because there have been widely publicized differences, and even animosities, between us (differences which creationists, with extreme intellectual dishonesty, have not hesitated to exploit).

As you can see, public criticism does not preclude the recognition of professional excellence. (Gould’s response starts: “Excellent idea”)


But let’s bring it closer to home – how does the world of the database professional feel about public criticism? Let’s take the on-line publication DBAZine as an indicator.

As I write, there are 28 articles on www.dbazine.com written by Fabian Pascal. Take a look through them, and see the type of critical comments they contain. The current article “Old Approach, True Implementations”, for example, comments on the credentials of one David Cartwright with the line “Cartwright means SQL DBMSs, not relational databases, of course; he seems unaware of the difference.”  It’s hardly a remark designed to avoid hurting the feelings of a sensitive author – but why should it be ? (If you read the article, you will appreciate the justification for the comment).

Fabian Pascal has a lot to say about the state of the “relational” database market. He doesn’t pull his punches when he says it, and he justifies what he says.  DBAZine, as an organization, doesn’t seem to have any problem with publishing the type of criticism he supplies.

 

For more material by Fabian Pascal, and Chris Date on the differences between relational databases and SQL databases, take a look at www.dbdebunk.com 


What about other organizations for the database professional?

Let’s take a look at SearchOracle.com (which bills itself as “The Web’s best independent resource for Oracle Professionals”). SearchOracle advertises a service where you can “Ask the Experts” to get “ your toughest strategic Oracle questions answered by some of the top gurus in the Oracle community.”

Rudy Limeback is the SearchOracle expert in the SQL category. So it seems reasonable to assume that SearchOracle approves of Rudy Limeback and considers him to be a professional. If so, they would presumably have no objections about the following extract (dated June 2002) from the article Natural or Surrogate Key.

In this article, the author references an article he has found on Builder.com (dated April 2002) called Database design for platform independence, and makes the comment:

It starts out with great intentions, but immediately makes two suggestions that I would call "howlers"

Then follows this up with:

Even more hilarious were the descriptions of the types of joins

The descriptions of joins then follow – and you can see what Rudy Limeback means – with a reference to the feedback that had appeared on Builder.com (so there’s another organization that seems to agree in principle with the concept of allowing public criticism).

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the feedback – based on my occasional reading of Builder.com items I had expected it to be at the end of the article – so it would have been convenient if, for the benefit of beginners, there had been some explanation of these comments in Rudy’s article

So we conclude from this section that SearchOracle implicitly approves of the concept of professional criticism because they endorse Rudy Limeback – who clearly feels that it can be appropriate to criticize other authors publicly on the Internet. Despite the lack of explicit justification in the article, I’m sure that anyone with experience of SQL will agree that Rudy’s comments were appropriate and justifiable.

In passing, we can also note that Builder.com explicitly approves of public criticism of its authors – an example that more web publishers would do well to follow.


Addendum 31st March 2005

A late addition to the list – from Oracle Magazine, the March/April 2003 issue:

I found an error in "Advanced Tuning with Statspack" in your January/ February 2003 issue. Rich Niemiec writes that in the event of a wait on a segment header to increase the Freelist groups. Freelist groups only apply to Oracle9i RAC systems, and have nothing to do buffer busy waits on non-RAC systems.
Donald K. Burleson

Now, there were a number of points in the article that one might choose to argue about; but if you do attempt to criticize someone in public, it’s a good idea to check your facts first. This was the reply to the criticism:

Freelist groups do, in fact, have some benefits apart from Oracle9i RAC. MetaLink says that Freelist groups can have a positive impact in an exclusive environment (non-RAC) by helping reduce contention on the segment header. However, I should point out that segment header block contention can be addressed without multiple Freelist groups, for example, by increasing the pctfree/pctused gap or by partitioning the segment.
Rich Niemiec

Personally, I thought the editor of Oracle Magazine should not have bothered to publish Don Burleson’s attempt at criticism once it became clear that Burleson had got it wrong – publication added no value to the available information, and did nothing to help improve the potential flow of useful information – but on the plus side, it is another example of how public criticism can, apparently, be acceptable.


Conclusion

Is criticism unprofessional? I don’t think so – professionals know what they are talking about, and if they have criticisms to make, they will be made clearly, succinctly, and with justification.

Of course, some criticism is amateurish and easily identified as such. It can be seen in writers who state “this is rubbish” without giving any concrete explanation or reference material to show why something is rubbish. It can be seen in writers who “play the man, not the ball” – trying to attack an author without addressing the material that has been published. It can be seen in writers who try to avoid the point by changing the question.

Anyone who puts themselves forward to the public as an expert should be subject to public criticism. It is almost axiomatic that the author who can’t deal with professional criticism probably doesn’t know their subject.


Quotation:

“Truth is great and will prevail . . . ; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

Thomas Jefferson – The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, 1786.


Footnote:

Because I try to explain how, and why, things work, the people who read my material are almost inevitably going to be exactly those who are most likely to agree with this note. However, it would be useful to hear your views: in particular, is it unprofessional to highlight the errors in claims presented by persistent offenders?

 

Email me at jonathan@jlcomp.demon.co.uk and I’ll post a (fairly sampled, anonymous if preference stated) selection of the responses.


Responses 26th April 2005:

To date I have received a couple of dozen positive responses that I will try to summarize in a few days time, and one specific piece of text from Richard Niemiec of TUSC that I agreed to print verbatim as I had upset him with an earlier version of this article by using the word “dubious” in reference to ‘a number of points’ in his article for OTN cited in the addendum for 31st March.

Following our email exchange I rephrased the comment – my opinion of the article was not something I had intended to draw attention to, I was only interested in highlighting the fact that public criticism had taken place and all three parties involved seemed to think it was acceptable.

In response to his request for clarification of the term ‘dubious’ I have also supplied Rich with a link to an answer I gave on the Usenet newgroup comp.databases.oracle.server a couple of years ago to a question about the  article.  (Re-reading that newgroup thread, I’ve just realized that Don Burleson – for he it was that asked the question – didn’t suggest that it was unprofessional for me to make the comments that I did.)


Verbatim from Rich Niemiec

 

First of all Jonathon, thanks for all of the technical knowledge you've shared with the Oracle community especially via Metalink! 

On your question:

Personally, I think you should have the character to rise above such low standards.  Before I criticize someone's work publicly, I believe it would certainly be more professional and respectful to initially check with the author to see if the criticism is accurate and also to give them a chance to correct it.  Who wouldn't want this opportunity among us? It is completely unprofessional to publicly slam someone without their knowledge at all or without giving them the chance to respond. If the criticism is incorrect it could potentially even be deemed slander.  I've seen several excellent discussions become reduced to senseless banter because people don't show common courtesy and decency to others.

Life is too short to not care more about those around you.  You can always post the truth if that is your goal without slamming someone else publicly. I think that we have a greater responsibility to one another and to bring out the best in each other.  If you slam them, you'll only bring out the worst in them.  Everyone is a work in progress and nobody is perfect.  A nice quote on this says: "...If I treat people as they are, I make them worse, but if I treat them as they ought to be, I will help them to become what they are capable of becoming."

Oh yeah, thanks for asking the question and making a difference!

Rich Niemiec
rich@tusc.com


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