Halstead’s metrics and flat-Earthers are still with us

August 18, 2011
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(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

I recently discovered a fascinating series of technical reports from the 1970s in the Purdue University e-Pubs archive that shine a surprising light on what are now known as the Halstead metrics.

The first surprises came from Halstead’s A Software Physics Analysis of Akiyama’s Debugging Data; surprising in the size of the data set used (nine measurements of four attributes), the amount of hand waving used to pluck numbers out of thin air, the substantial difference between the counting methods used then and now and the very high correlation found between various measured and calculated attributes.

I disagreed with the numbers Halstead plucked and wrote some R to check Halstead’s results and try out my own numbers. While my numbers significantly changed the effort estimation values, the high correlations between the number of faults and various source attributes remained high. Even fixing the inappropriate use of the Pearson correlation coefficient (this requires the data to be normally distributed, which it is not {program size is now thought to follow a power law/exponential like distribution}) to the Spearman rank correlation coefficient did not have much impact. Halstead seems to have struck luck with this data set.

What did Halstead’s colleagues at Purdue think of these metrics? The report Software Science Revisited: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Its Empirical Support written four years after Halstead’s flurry of papers contains a lot of background material and points out the lack of any theoretical foundation for some of the equations, that the analysis of the data was weak and that a more thorough analysis suggests theory and data don’t agree. Damming stuff.

If it is known that Halstead’s metrics do not hold up why do writers of books (including Shen, Conte and Dunsmore, the authors of the above report) continue to discuss Halstead’s work? Are they treating this work like Astronomy authors treat Ptolemy’s theory (the Sun and planets revolved around the Earth), i.e., incorrect but part of history and worth a mention?

An observation in the Shen et al report, that Halstead originally proposed the metrics as a way of measuring the complexity of algorithms not programs, explains the background to the report Impurities Found in Algorithm Implementations. Halstead uses the term “impurities” and talks about the need for “purification” in his early work. In this report Halstead points out that the value of metrics for “algorithms written by students” are very different from those for the equivalent programs published in journals and goes on to list eight classes of impurity that need to be purified (i.e., removing or rewriting clumsy, inefficient or duplicate code) in order to obtain results that agree with the theory. Now we know what needs to be done to existing programs to get them to agree with the predictions made by the Halstead metrics!

Did Halstead strike lucky with the data used in his first published analysis of ‘industrial code’, obtaining a very high correlation that caused him to shift focus away from measuring algorithms to measuring programs? Unfortunately he died soon after publishing the work for which he is now known, so he did not get to comment on how is ideas were used over the subsequent years.

Why are people still attracted to the Halstead metrics, given their poor theoretical foundations and a predictive power that is comparable with using lines of code? Is it because the idea of code volume and length are easy to understand and so are attractive (dimensionally both of these metrics are the same, a fact that cannot hold for any self consistent concept of volume and length)? Is it because we don’t have alternative metrics that outperform the poorly performing ones proposed by Halstead, after all Copernicus only won out because his theory gave answers that were more accurate than Ptolomy’s.

Perhaps like the flat Earthers proponents of the Halstead metrics will always be with us.

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