A Modest Attempt to Help Prevent Unnecessary Static / Dynamic Typing Debates

April 7 2010, last updated April 8 2010

When I was a teenager, the relative worth of different operating systems was a continuous topic of debate. Starting with Amigas vs. Ataris (not that I could afford either), and later PC (meaning DOS / Windows) vs. Acorn (a British computer manufacturer, once fairly successful, but now unknown by anyone under 21), groups of teenage boys would spend countless hours arguing that the other side were, at best, misguided and, at worst, in league with the devil. Boys like to argue, and these were fairly harmless topics, but by the time I'd started university, I was long past the point of wanting to engage in heated debate about such topics.

Several times recently, memories of wasted hours have flooded back to me as I have been an unwilling participant in one of the longest-standing debates in programming languages - statically vs. dynamically typed languages. Frankly, such debates haven't become any less painful since the passing of my teenage years. The problem in such debates remains the same: both sides over-inflate the advantages of their favoured approach while wilfully maintaining their ignorance of the other. Add to this the common tendency of any side in a debate to assume the worst of their opposition, and you have a situation that resembles Northern Europe in WWI: grim, unrelenting trench warfare, with neither side making any real advances.

To make matters worse, the debate in this particular case is asymmetric. For decades now, the computing intelligentsia have been overwhelmingly in favour of static typing - in academia, this bias is almost total. While the intellectual basis of static typing is both well established and frequently promulgated, the dynamic typing community has been far less intellectually confident. Please note, I'm not saying that dynamic typing has a less firm intellectual basis - simply that it is infrequently articulated. Let me give two simple, but different, examples:

  • The first is terminological. Dynamically typed languages are frequently dismissed as scripting languages, which is at best an odd classification (languages such as Python have all the modularisation-type features of equivalent statically typed languages) and, at worst, deliberately derogatory. But labels are just labels: there's no point getting too worried about them. What's more frustrating is a lack of understanding of the difference between statically and dynamically typed languages. Many (though, in fairness, not all) static typing advocates confuse dynamic typing with no typing. Dynamic typing doesn't mean that programs have no types - rather the typing discipline is enforced at run-time rather than at compile-time. Compare this with strong and weak typing. In a dynamically, strongly typed language like Python, types have no compile-time effect, but they can not be overruled at run-time (adding an integer to a string causes a run-time type exception); conversely, a statically, weakly typed language such as C enforces types at compile-time, but allows them to be overridden at run-time (to sometimes hilarious, though generally annoying, effect).
  • The second is practical. Refactoring is an umbrella term (in my world, at least) for the activity of reworking a program to improve its internal quality. Any program that's been around a while will have had unanticipated changes made to it, and will require some refactoring. Small exploratory tweaks are the hallmark of refactoring in dynamically typed languages; they often temporarily break the system as a whole (so program execution tends to terminate prematurely), but give the programmer confidence that the particular part of the program they are concentrating on is not adversely impacted by the larger change they intend making. Unfortunately, static typing inhibits this type of program refactoring, since even the smallest of tweaks must respect the static typing system. If the whole thing doesn't compile, it can't be run; and if a small part of the change can't be tested on a running system, the programmer will often not have the confidence to spend days (or longer) changing the whole system, only to find that the original idea was a bad one.

To my mind, both statically and dynamically typed languages have a place. If you're building software for a nuclear reactor, I want you to use every tool at your disposal to reduce errors, even if that increases the cost of producing the software by a factor of ten or more - and statically typed languages will undoubtedly catch some errors that might otherwise go undiscovered, so they're the right tool for the job. If you're building a website, I want you to make it as easy as possible for yourself to modify it to reflect rapidly changing requirements - which probably means using a dynamically typed language.

One day I hope that someone will put together a comprehensive and unbiased comparison of the two paradigms since, to the best of my knowledge, nothing currently exists which does the job. Until then, I immodestly offer a pre-print of a modest book chapter I wrote last year (and, if you're really interested, its corresponding BibTeX entry) where I tried to give an introduction to dynamically typed languages. Inevitably this involves a comparison to statically typed languages, defining terminology, and trying to enumerate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each approach. As mentioned in the chapter, I personally dislike the terms statically typed and dynamically typed because they mislead so many people; unfortunately, changing them to something less misleading is a battle I could never win, so I start from the assumption that we're stuck with those terms. In retrospect, the chapter is far from perfect: while I tried to suppress my own biases, I didn't fully succeed; there are many parts which I'd like to expand; and even more parts which I'd like to change. Yet, despite this, I can't help feel that some of the points it makes (even though none of them are particularly original) might have helped avoid some of the more tedious aspects of the static vs. dynamically typed debates that I was forcibly involved in. Until something better comes along, it might fill a useful niche.

Updated (April 8 2010): Fred Blasdel points me at Chris Smith's What To Know Before Debating Type Systems which covers much (though not all) of the same ground as my chapter, although more briefly, and from a statically-typed perspective. You may find it interesting to compare and contrast.

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