“It’s more of an art than a science”

I’ll be honest, this phrase bothers me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a scientist by training. Perhaps it’s because this seems to be a misuse of the work ‘art’ or a misinterpretation on my part. But whenever I hear it used with reference to software development, I hear: “we use heuristics and guesswork because we don’t have time to do research and there is no body of research from which to draw”. Does that really make the solution to an underlying question or problem an ‘art’ rather than a science?

I of course tried googling the phrase to determine what it’s supposed to mean, but didn’t get very far. The top result from my search was:

It means it is not something which is governed by clearly-defined rules, as a science would be. In science things are either right or wrong; in psychology (or any art) it’s not possible to say what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

This particular answer seems to misunderstand what science is. In essence, it’s a way to understand the way the world works through experimentation and verification. It’s also typically methodical because reproducibility of research results is important.

Perhaps the reference to rules is based on experience with things like mechanics in Physics and Newton’s laws of motion. We can predict the trajectory of projectiles in the air for example. But this is a very limited view of science. I have been watching the programme Horizon on the BBC recently and learned about the science of taste and even creativity. Yes, we’re learning through science about how creativity works!

At the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century, we thought that we would soon learn everything there was to learn about the world. Over a century later, there still seems to be no end to the growth of our scientific knowledge. And things that used to be firmly considered “arts” are much less so now.

Consider cooking: more and more chefs are learning the basic science of both taste and cooking. From that base of understanding they can be even more creative in what they do. It allows people like Heston Blumenthal to create bacon and egg ice cream or snail porridge. If you’re interested, McGee on food and cooking is an essential read on the underlying science.

This also highlights an important point: creativity and science are in no way mutually exclusive. In fact, each enables the other. As I mentioned, a scientific base allows for more creativity because of the deeper understanding of how things work, but creativity is also essential in providing insights into how things work.

Coming back to the original point of this post, my ire was recently raised by a discussion on Hacker News where someone wrote

I’m not sure that there is a sure-fire way to quantify what tests are or are not necessary. In my opinion, this is something that comes with experience and is more of an art than a science. But I’m okay with that.

This seems innocuous enough and I wouldn’t be surprised if many people agree with it. But do we really think that it’s not possible to learn through research what a good level of tests is? Software is typically structured and full of patterns, so the pool of possible structures to investigate is limited. In addition, we already have tools to detect cyclomatic complexity and other metrics of software, so would it be so hard to determine which parts of the software are involved with the “critical” features?

I think what bothers me the most is that despite the huge revenue of the industry as a whole, and how much money depends on the successful completion of IT projects, so little research seems to be done to help improve the software development process. Perhaps the research is being done but it’s not widely disseminated. But I would at least have expected to come across research to back up the claims of agile practitioners (as one example). Not that I necessarily disagree with what they say, but it seems that going agile requires more faith than should be necessary.

Does the software development industry and community require a more scientific mindset? What do you think?

7 thoughts on ““It’s more of an art than a science”

  1. Peter Post author

    Another thing I really wanted to say is that if a software development team wants to produce something functional and reliable, and do that reproducibly, a body of knowledge based on scientific research is important if not essential.

  2. Peter Post author

    I hadn’t. Thanks for the link. That’s a great insight and overshadows my own post somewhat 🙂 But I wonder when a new generation is going to grow up believing in evidence-based software engineering? We still seem stuck in cycles where the new batch of developers re-invent stuff and make the same mistakes that the old batch did. “But it’s different this time!”.

    I’m acutely aware of my own lack of knowledge about what has gone before, and that makes me sad. It’s something I hope to rectify, so references to books and papers are most welcome.

  3. TimeSearcher

    Thanks for the post.

    I think epistemology should be a universal subject in all education (how can we really know what we think we know?).

    The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ roughly translates as ‘take nobody’s word for it’.

    I remember the “Information Explosion” crisis in academia, when we were all concerned about the amount of scientific literature in every field outrunning the capacity of each practitioner to keep up in their specialty. And I’ve wondered where we would be today without the WWW.

    P.S. I have the McGee book (“On Food and Cooking”) in my library and can also recommend it highly.

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