Falsifiability and Unit Testing

Without a doubt, Test Driven Development (TDD) lies in the core of my software development approach.  I have been a very early adapter of automated testings since my C++ and C# days and always felt very enthusiastic about their impact on the quality of the software.

I have to admit that it was not until I became a full time python developer that my commitment and understanding of TDD was perfected. Compared to statically linked languages like C# or Java, the dynamic nature of python multiplies the significance of unit testing, elevating it to one of the most fundamental tactics for the delivery of a successful project. More than this, I do not think that I will exaggerate if I claim that as a back end developer, the most frequent way I can see my code in action, is simply the execution of the test scripts.

I have spent a lot of time and effort thinking about the best practices and patterns that can simplify testing and improve their  effectiveness in discovering as many bogus conditions as possible.  Although there exist preferable heuristics and coding idioms which can indeed improve the degree of code’s testiness,  I still believe that the process of creating highly testable software involves a lot of talent and experience on top of knowledge that can be communicated through books or taught by a professor.

Karl Popper and unit testing

Aside from computer programming, the other topic I am always fascinated about is Philosophy of Science.  Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science ever lived, introduced us to the Falsifiability principle, which I believe is perfectly applicable to the concept of Test Driven Development.

Falsifiability defines the distinction between a scientific theory and metaphysics. Based on this principle a theory is considered scientific only if we can conceive an observation to nullify it (prove it to be wrong).

For example, a statement like “The Earth is flat” is scientific because it can be nullified if a traveler reaches his starting point after departing from a specific location and keep on moving towards the same direction.  The fact that a statement is scientific, does not mean that it is correct of course.

Based on Popper’s philosophy, we can never be sure that a scientific theory is correct as the only thing we can do with it, is to prove it wrong by executing a successful falsifying test.

I believe that TDD constitutes a  projection of Karl Popper’s Falsifiability to the process of developing software, as it can be viewed as a special type of a “scientific” conjecture that needs to satisfy a collection of tests whose purpose is  to “prove” it wrong by braking its expected behavior.

In software development we need to substitute the term “scientific theory” with “software that works as intended” and the proposed experiments with tests that need to be satisfied.

In the same way that we can never be certain about the absolute “truth” of a scientific theory but the best we can do is to explain as many experiments as possible, we can also never be sure that a specific piece of software is completely “bug free”. The best we can do is to describe as many tests as possible and prove that they can be served as expected without breaking the desired behaviour.

At this point we need to clarify that, as strange as it might sound, a successful test is the one that fails!  A failing test needs our attention, as its existence means that we must revisit our code and resolve the related issues something that will cause the test to pass. Our mission as developers, is to increase the descriptiveness and comprehensiveness of our tests, trying to cover every execution path and parameter combination that can ever occur!

Diminishing the value of TDD is a sign of inexperience

As a developer, there have been many times when I have been presented to some legacy code that was clearly ill functioning and my mission was to either refactor or rewrite it from scratch. In almost all of these cases, the legacy platform was extremely difficult to test, as it presented a very tight coupling among its components and external dependencies, making it impossible to write effective and realistic tests.

A very widespread tendency among the software project managers (PMs) is to diminish the value of testing. In their struggle to meet irrational deadlines, PMs are focusing on delivering a working and feature rich solution, usually underestimating its complexity and its potential for extensibility. Following this way of delivering software, TDD is one of the practices that is usually overlooked, as inexperienced and non technical PMs like to believe that writing comprehensive tests is very time consuming and it does not really add lots of business value in the final solution!

In the core of my software development philosophy, I am viewing production code as a conjecture that is always paired with a vast array of tests that are meant to invalidate its functionality. I think that this approach is very well aligned with Popper’s Falsifiability and I have to admit that this analogy works fairly well when it comes to measuring the quality of a platform.

I completely disagree with the view that the development of tests is a time consuming and expensive process. On the contrary, investing in extensive and well thought testing suites actually decreases the final cost of the application when we consider bug fixes, evolution to new technologies and adaption of new and originally unanticipated features.

Conclusion

Writing highly testable code requires experience, talent and knowledge of both generic testing patterns and all of the available platform specific utilities and tools. Possessing the ability to create testable software is one of the most critical qualities of a master developer. Code that is easy and convenient to test will outperform any other solution that is difficult to test, as it will evolve easier to meet future needs, extend its life span and maximize its cost-reward ratio.

To master the TDD process, the developer needs to reach a certain level of maturity and cultivate the ability to transform specifications to “Popperian” experiments expressed as simple tests, always trying to maintain the golden ratio of coverage over cost of development.

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