When we make one part of our lives safer, we tend to take more chances somewhere else. Psychologists call this tendency risk homeostasis.
One of the studies often cited to support the theory of risk homeostasis involved German cab drivers. Drivers in the experimental group were given cabs with anti-lock brakes while drivers in the control group were given cabs with conventional brakes. There was no difference in the rate of crashes between the two groups. The drivers who had better brakes drove less carefully.
Risk homeostasis may explain why dynamic programming languages such as Python aren’t as dangerous as critics suppose.
Advocates of statically typed programming languages argue that it is safer to have static type checking than to not have it. Would you rather the computer to catch some of your errors or not? I’d rather it catch some of my errors, thank you. But this argument assumes two things:
- static type checking comes at no cost, and
- static type checking has no impact on programmer behavior.
Advocates of dynamic programming languages have mostly focused on the first assumption. They argue that static typing requires so much extra programming effort that it is not worth the cost. I’d like to focus on the second assumption. Maybe the presence or absence of static typing changes programmer behavior.
Maybe a lack of static type checking scares dynamic language programmers into writing unit tests. Or to turn things around, perhaps static type checking lulls programmers into thinking they do not need unit tests. Maybe static type checking is like anti-lock brakes.
Nearly everyone would agree that static type checking does not eliminate the need for unit testing. Someone accustomed to working in a statically typed language might say “I know the compiler isn’t going to catch all my errors, but I’m glad that it catches some of them.” Static typing might not eliminate the need for unit testing, but it may diminish the motivation for unit testing. The lack of compile-time checking in dynamic languages may inspire developers to write more unit tests.
See Bruce Eckel’s article Strong Typing vs. Strong Testing for more discussion of the static typing and unit testing.
Update: I’m not knocking statically typed languages. I spend most of my coding time in such languages and I’m not advocating that we get rid of static typing in order to scare people into unit testing.
I wanted to address the question of what programmers do, not what they should do. In that sense, this post is more about psychology than software engineering. (Though I believe a large part of software engineering is in fact psychology as I’ve argued here.) Do programmers who work in dynamic languages write more tests? If so, does risk homeostasis help explain why?
Finally, I appreciate the value of unit testing. I’ve spent most of the last couple days writing unit tests. But there is a limit to the kinds of bugs that unit tests can catch. Unit tests are good at catching errors in code that has been written, but most errors come from code that should have been written. See Software sins of omission.