February 17, 2009

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Are We No Better Than Those UFO Nuts? The Case for a Software "Enlightenment"

Back to the subject of UFOs and the paranormal...

One thing that I find very entertaining about the UFO community is how authoratitive they manage to sound whilst piling speculation on top of conjecture on top of supposition on top of a very shaky bedrock of fundamental assumptions.

While less colourful students of the phenomenon dare only to ask "are THEY here?", many UFO "researchers" settled that debate decades ago in their own minds and are now preoccupied with more advanced questions like "are the small grey insect-like aliens at war with the tall lizard-like ones?" and "what does the High President of the Galactic Federation think about this whole Isreal/Palestine thing?"

Check out this classic example of the ouvre from self-styled (and what a style that is!) UFO expert Ed Komarek. How many totally unsupported claims did you count?

It's easy to laugh, of course. And, yes, I do think these folk are either completely ga-ga, or just plain crooked and they know they're making it up. The poor, ignorant saps who eat this stuff up from UFO fanzines ('cause that's what they are, folks - it's a cult of personality) and blogs and discussion groups are being led down a very long and windy garden path by charletans and nutcases who are every bit as screwy as astrologers and mediums - and priests, let's not forget.

At best we get pseudoscience. At worst, just plain drivel without even the shallowest attempt to justify it scientifically. UFO lore is 99% "he said, she said", with researchers relying mostly on anecdotes and spurious official memos to back up their outrageous claims.

But when I read the books, magazines, blogs and message boards of our illustrious software development community, I'm ashamed to say that we are equally piling speculation upon conjecture upon supposition on top of a very, very shaky foundation of assumptions. Pseudoscience is rampant in software development. Long-since debunked (if they ever were talen seriously) pop psychology and sociology, and totally antiquated or beyond-the-edge-of-the-fringe management theories abound. Everything from Myers-Briggs Types to the masterpiece of pseudoscience that is the Theory of Constraints - our profession is stuffed to the gills with unproven management theories that are actually nothing more than old wives tales and voodoo.

And it doesn't stop there: alarmingly, much - actually most - of what we say about writing software itself is also just a load of old mumbo-jumbo when you scratch beneath the thin veneer. A lot of the received wisdom about software design has not been validated by experiment, and the causal mechanisms behind so much of what we consider to be good or bad design choices are simply not understood.

And for every one of us who seeks empirical answers through some kind of testable theory of "code mechanics", there are 100 more who are quite happy to believe that you should not use the Singleton Pattern simply because "the book said so".

Just as for every person who seeks scientific proof of alien visitation there are 100 more who are happy to accept that they're here - or, indeed, not here (because both positions are unscientific if they're based only on faith) - purely because Stanton T Friedman or Nick Pope says they are.

As software developers, we are living in a dark age of ignorance and superstition, and one of my great hopes for the next decade is a resurgence in interest in the science of software (as well as a surge in practice of the craft of software development - because the two are by no means mutually exclusive) and perhaps one day we'll look back and call this transitional period the software industry's very own Enlightenment.

Posted 9 years, 4 months ago on February 17, 2009