‘Bottom up’ versus ‘top down’ thinking – on just about everything

Guest opinion by Neil Lock

Today, I’m going to look at two diametrically opposed ways of thinking, and at the practitioners of those two ways. One way, I call bottom up; the other, top down.

Bottom up thinking is like the way we build a house. Starting from the ground, we work upwards, using what we’ve done already as support for what we’re working on at the moment. Top down thinking, on the other hand, starts out from an idea that is a given. It then works downwards, seeking evidence for the idea, or to add detail to it, or to put it into practice.

These two opposed methods bear on far more than just the way we think. The idea of bottom up versus top down can be applied to many dimensions of our lives. It can be applied to our overall world view, and to our views on religion. To how we seek knowledge. To our ethical and political views. To our conception of government and law. To our opinions on economics and environment. To how we communicate with others. To our views on education and media; and many more. Bottom up versus top down isn’t a single scale of (say) 0 to 100, but a multi-dimensional space, in which each individual’s position is represented on many different axes.

Some individuals, like me, seek to use the bottom up method in all or almost all of these dimensions. Others may take a predominantly top down view, or even an extreme top down one. Yet others may apply bottom up thinking in some dimensions, and top down in others.

For brevity, I’ll introduce the phrases “bottom upper” and “top downer” to mean individuals who practise these two methods. Mostly, I’ll be considering only one dimension at a time. In which case, the bottom upper is someone near one end of the scale in that dimension, and the top downer is someone near the other. But at the end of the essay, I’ll take a look at an overall measure of bottom up versus top down thinking.

I’ll give a couple of historical examples. John Locke, my 17th-century hero and almost namesake, and from whose writings I’ll use a few quotes in this essay, was a fine example of a bottom upper. His politics was forward looking and genuinely liberal. While he was a staunch Protestant, his religious views were tolerant for his time. And he had among his friends several of the finest scientists of the day. In contrast, Josef Stalin was an extreme top downer. He set out to impose his style of communism on the Soviet people, regardless of the consequences to those people. And he and his policies ended up causing as many as 20 million deaths of innocents.


The most fundamental level at which bottom up versus top down applies is the way in which the individual thinks.

The bottom up thinker seeks to build, using his senses and his mind, a picture of the reality of which he is a part. He examines, critically, the evidence of his senses. He assembles this evidence into percepts, things he perceives as true. Then he pulls them together and generalizes them into concepts. He uses logic and reason to seek understanding, and he often stops to check that he is still on the right lines. And if he finds he has made an error, he tries to correct it.

The top down thinker, on the other hand, has far less concern for logic or reason, or for correcting errors. He tends to accept new ideas only if they fit his pre-existing beliefs. And so, he finds it hard to go beyond the limitations of what he already knows or believes.

World view and religion

Bottom up versus top down orientation also contributes much to the individual’s world view, including his view on religion. When considering whether humans are naturally good or bad, for example, the bottom upper will look into himself, and judge what he finds. He is, therefore, likely to conclude that (occasional lapses notwithstanding) he himself is naturally good. Thus, other human beings must be naturally good, too. And he sees those that behave badly as aberrations; John Locke dubbed them “noxious creatures” and “degenerate men.” Further, the bottom upper probably thinks that he has free will, and others do too. And consequently, each of us has personal responsibility for the effects on others of our voluntary actions.

In religion, he may or may not believe in a god. While some bottom uppers follow one form or other of religion, many (including me) end up as agnostics. And some go further, towards atheism. But the bottom upper has little or no desire to impose his personal religious preferences on others. And so, he reaches a view similar to that I encapsulate in what I call Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

The top downer, on the other hand, is often too lazy to work out his world view for himself, and prefers to take a ready-made world view from others. He is quite likely to think that humans are naturally bad, perhaps because he has been told so by parents or religious instructors. Top downers (particularly Marxists) also have a tendency to see the universe as deterministic, and therefore to deny the existence of free will and so personal responsibility. And in religion, top downers often have a desire to, and many will try to, impose on others their own orthodoxy.

Seeking truth

The bottom upper sees truth as objective, independently of what people happen to think about particular truths. As a result, he believes that we can discover truths. A particular truth or fact may of course be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered.

The bottom upper seeks out, and evaluates, the evidence he can find on his subject. He tries to investigate the facts critically. He cultivates and improves his bullshit meter. He uses it to detect things that don’t look quite right, that don’t add up, that seem to contradict facts he knows or believes, or which may repay further investigation. And he values science, and the scientific method which lies at its heart.

In contrast, many top downers hold that facts can be different for different individuals, groups or cultures; and that feelings are often more important than facts. In this view, there is no such thing as objective truth. The top downer can thus ignore or deny evidence, when it fails to fit his pre-conceived notions. He is often unwilling to change his mind, even when presented with a strong case for doing so. He may find little value in science. Or he may even try to pass off as science ideas which are not, in reality, worthy of the name scientific.


The bottom up thinker can conceive that, among the moral rules in diverse cultures, there is a core that is (or should be) common to all. He is attracted to the idea of moral universalism. That is, that what is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa. And it’s in this sense, he thinks, that all human beings are equal. He doesn’t know what, precisely, the ethical core should be; and he’s aware that it’s a hard problem. But if he has a particular interest in ethics, he will seek to understand and to elicit this core as best he can.

I myself have thought about this issue for many years. The ethical core, as I understand it, begins with three ideas: peacefulness, honesty and respect for others’ rights. I’ve made attempts to list the rights, and I know my list is nowhere near perfect as yet. But they include fundamental rights like life and property. They include what I call rights of non-impedance, like freedom of movement and of association. And they include the presumption of freedom – that, if there is no good reason to prohibit something, then it must be OK to do it – and a right to self-defence. The core must also include the notion of justice. I conceive it thus: “Everyone deserves to be treated, over the long term and in the round, at least as well as he or she treats others.”

Further, the core must include a clear idea of personal responsibility. For example: We should not intentionally do unjust harm to others. We should compensate those to whom we inadvertently or unavoidably do unjust harm. And we should strive to be independent, and not to let ourselves become a drain on others. Moreover, we must always act in good faith. When we have made promises to others, we must strive to keep our side of the bargain, as long as the other party keeps his. And if we choose to have children, we must take responsibility for bringing them up and educating them until they can function fully as human beings.

I recognize, however, that other bottom uppers are likely to have different conceptions of the ethical core. This isn’t “settled science” yet. We must, therefore, be tolerant of those with different ideas, as long as they are equally tolerant towards us. And our motto, in the final analysis, must be: “live and let live.”

In contrast, many top downers are moral relativists. They deny that there are any ethical rules which apply to everyone. Further, some maintain that right and wrong are merely cultural tastes. Some of them run aground on the libertine Scylla of “anything goes.” Others, perhaps most, let themselves be sucked into the authoritarian Charybdis of “might makes right.” They deny moral equality, holding that some (rulers) should have moral rights over and above others (subjects). In place of moral equality, many promote the conceit of equality of outcome for all. And they not only deny real rights, like property and freedom of movement and of association, but also wrongly promote aspirations like social security and “free” education to the status of rights.

Moreover, top downers are very often dishonest. They seem to have no shame about lying or misleading, or failing to deliver on their promises. And they often act in bad faith, too.

Top downers also like to deny the idea of objective or individual justice, substituting for it “social justice” or some other caricature of justice. They often duck personal, individual responsibility for what they do, and seek to evade accountability. Instead, they try to claim that some collective “we” bears responsibility for the ills of the world. This frequently leads them to behave as hypocrites. For example, promoting policies that aim to force others to make sacrifices, but failing to make any such sacrifices themselves.

Society, community and fellowship

For the bottom upper, the fundamental unit of society is the individual. The family is important, too. For the family is the smallest social unit which can survive indefinitely. Beyond the family, when individuals associate, the process must be voluntary and bottom up. As Herbert Spencer put it: “Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society.”

The bottom up thinker feels community with those, who behave civilly and cordially towards him. He prefers the company of those who, like him, seek truth and strive to obey basic moral rules such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. So, he seeks to judge others not by who they are, but by what they do, how they behave and what they say. Thus, he cares about his fellow human beings; that is, those who behave both as convivial human beings and as his fellows. And he prefers to associate and to trade with these people, rather than with top downers. Further, he knows that everyone is different. So, he strives to be tolerant of differences in received characteristics such as race, religion or nationality, and in lifestyle preferences.

The top downer, on the other hand, tends towards collectivism. He thinks that individuals should be subordinated to society (with or without a capital S). He expects people to be altruistic, and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. He is prone to judging people by characteristics such as their race, their received religion, their nationality or their political affiliations. He cares mainly or exclusively for those who share whichever of these characteristics are important to him. He is often intolerant of those who are different from others. And he has little time or respect for bottom up thinkers.


The bottom upper may be indifferent to politics. Or, perhaps, he may think of himself as a liberal, in the true sense of the word. That is, someone who desires the maximum freedom for everyone, consistent with being required to behave in a civil manner. Or he may think of himself as a conservative, one who is generally happy with tried and tested ways of doing things. But he doesn’t, as a rule, support the imposition of political agendas on people. And if he votes at all, he tends to do so for what he perceives as the lesser of two, or the least of several, evils. Further, the bottom upper usually has little desire for power over others. Thus he has no time for politics as it is practised today. And he may well hold politics, and those that take part in it, in contempt.

In contrast, the top downer tends to take a positive view of politics in general, and to support a political party or parties. His reasons may be ideological, selfish, or both. Many top downers are inclined to become active for their chosen Causes and agendas. They may favour ideas generally rated as on the left, for example: Socialism or communism. Egalitarianism and welfare-statism. Health fascism and social engineering. Social justice warfare. Suppression of capitalism, and perhaps rejection of property rights. Or ideas commonly seen as on the right, such as: Extreme nationalism. Racism. Religious or social conservatism. Fascism. Control of the economy by large, privileged corporations. Military interventionism. The top downer may combine such ideas with other, newer agendas like identity politics, political correctness and environmentalism.

Most top downers, even if they don’t much want personal power over others, still like to see their agendas imposed on people, particularly on those they don’t like. And those, that do have a desire to wield power, are naturally attracted to politics. As a result, the great majority of politicians today, even in democracies, are top downers. And thus, even in a democracy, we bottom uppers and our views are all but completely unrepresented.

Government, law and justice

The bottom upper generally recognizes that government can be valuable. But its remit must be strongly circumscribed. He may, for example, agree with my list of three, and only three, valid functions of government. These are: First, to maintain peace. Second, to defend the rights and freedoms of every individual among the governed. And third, to resolve disputes justly. Moreover, for the bottom upper, government must be no more than an unbiased umpire. And it must be as small as possible; no larger, or more obtrusive, than it needs to be to fulfil its remit.

The bottom upper knows also that the rule of law can be valuable, as long as the law is consistent with, and no broader than, the common ethical core of civilized behaviour. And he can agree with John Locke that: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

He wants justice to be objective, impartial and individual. Not only must Lady Justice’s scales weigh accurately the evidence and arguments on both sides of each case. But also, justice must fairly balance the interests and desires of each individual or group against the interests and desires of others. Thus everyone should be treated, in the round, as they treat others; and according to what they do, not who they are. And every individual should receive, as far as is feasible, what he deserves. Those that have done unjust wrongs should be made to compensate their victims. And they may also suffer criminal punishment if their acts were greedy, or malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason.

The bottom upper also holds that government should never violate rights or freedoms unless strictly necessary in order to deliver its remit; for example, to arrest a criminal suspect to bring him to trial. And any such violations of rights must be kept to the minimum. Further, what a non-criminal individual pays for government should be in proportion to the benefit he receives from it, neither more nor less. Just as, for example, what an individual pays for home contents insurance is in proportion to the sum insured. As John Locke put it: “It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit everyone who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it.”

The top downer, on the other hand, likes big, active government. He wants government to take on functions like education, health care, transport and insurance, none of which have anything to do with its proper remit. He is also comfortable with the idea of a ruling class – maybe including him or his soulmates – having a right to rule over people in a particular geographical area.

In contrast to law, he favours legislation. He thinks that, just because some group of politicians agree on some putative law, that gives them a right to have their minions enforce it, irrespective of its rightness or wrongness. Moreover, he may well deny the validity of objective, individual justice. And he may promote instead fatuous ideas like social justice, environmental justice or some ill defined idea of fairness.

The top downer often sees government as a tool to achieve the ends of the particular ideology or agenda he favours. He condones arbitrary violations of rights and freedoms by governments, as long as they are done for a cause he believes in. And he not only condones, but applauds, taxation that re-distributes wealth from those who justly earn it to government itself, to its cronies, and to those it seeks to bribe in order to gain their support.


The bottom upper is not only a bottom up thinker, but a bottom up doer, too. He strives, to the best of his abilities, to be economically productive and independent. He favours the economic free market, which he sees as the best way to achieve the common good; that is, the good of every individual who is willing to put in the effort to be productive. He abhors any kind of restriction on the free market, because such restrictions stifle the abundance of opportunity which he desires for everyone. And he may well favour the culture of small companies over large ones.

In the economy, the people who actually get the jobs done, and so create wealth, are mostly bottom uppers. Some of them work with their hands or with machinery: for example, farmers, industrial workers or artisans. Others create in a more intellectual way: for example computer programmers, mathematicians and some writers. Yet others, such as doctors, do a bit of both. Even architects and accountants are often bottom uppers. Counter-intuitively, bottom uppers can also be good, if often reluctant, managers of people. This is partly because they are usually objective; and partly because they often have a natural empathy with people as individuals. They know that each individual is different, and seek to bring out the best from each of them.

In contrast, those top downers who work in the private sector tend to prefer the top down culture of large corporations. Not being natural doers, they can only succeed through other people. And so, they seek to rise in their organizations. Many of them like company politics and scheming, and aspire to be “snakes in suits” and reach the top corporate level. And some of them treat the people they manage with contempt.

Government jobs, too, attract top downers. They often like to exercise power, and to plan and regulate other people’s lives. And if their jobs are tax funded, they only have to account to higher-ups in the bureaucracy; they don’t have to account to the people who are actually paying for what they do. Another profession that attracts top downers is academe. There have long been many top downers in humanities departments at universities. And recently, they have been increasing even in the supposedly hard sciences. Such positions can bring top downers not only public respect, but also a bully pulpit from which they can peddle their agendas.


For the bottom upper, the Earth is a home and garden for the human race. The portions of the planet, which we own as individuals or groups, are ours, to be used as we see fit. And our job as a species is to make the best home and garden we can, for every human being worthy of the name. To that end, the planet’s resources, animal, vegetable, mineral and other, are there to be used wisely. They’re our bootstrap to a better world. And those that seek to prevent others making wise use of them are seeking to curtail, or even to extinguish, human civilization.

The bottom upper sees only one valid way to address environmental issues. And that is, to direct on to the matter the cold light of objective reason. To dig into the facts. To do precise, unbiased science, without any political agenda. To assess costs and benefits accurately and objectively, for everyone. And above all, to keep to the true and original precautionary principle: “First, do no harm.” Therefore it is always the responsibility of those, who want others to make changes, to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt. And those accused of causing environmental damage should never be put in the impossible position of having to prove a negative.

In total contrast, environmental top downers like to intone mantras such as “the earth is not ours” and “sustainable development.” They make scary but unfounded accusations about, for example, humans causing catastrophic climate change, seriously polluting the air, or extinguishing species. They misuse science, and try to cover up their misuses. They endlessly repeat pre-conceived talking points that are without substance. And they call those, who disagree with them, nasty names like “deniers.”

But perhaps the most obvious failing of environmental top downers is the arrant hypocrisy of the prominent among them. Take Al Gore, who tells us we should cut our energy use, yet whose own electricity consumption is 20 or more times the average. Or Prince Charles, who demonizes carbon dioxide emissions from cars and planes, yet himself is chauffeured around in limos and goes on holiday by private plane. As Oscar Wilde asked: “And what sort of lives do these people, who pose as being moral, lead themselves?”


The bottom upper knows that he’s not perfect. He can, at times, be unpleasant towards others; particularly when they oppose him on his hot button issues. But as a rule, he tries to behave in a cordial and reasonable manner.

In contrast, top downers – particularly those whose top down views span several dimensions – often show some, or even many, of the symptoms of sociopathy or psychopathy. They may be arrogant, and think they have a right to tell other people how to behave. Their lack of respect for truth may lead them to lie or mislead. Their lack of a strong moral sense may lead them to be insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous or dishonest. Their lack of concern for the individual can lead them to fail to show empathy or sensitivity towards other people, and even to treat people ruthlessly and without remorse. It can also lead them to behave recklessly; especially when other people, not them, will be expected to bear the consequences of their actions. They may be parasites, and live off others without delivering anything worthwhile in return; most of all, when their jobs are tax funded. And their lack of a sense of personal responsibility can lead them to try to deny wrongdoing, and to evade accountability for their actions.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that high ranking corporate officials include a greater proportion of sociopaths than the population as a whole. Nor that the meme “politicians are psychopaths” has acquired the traction it has. And here’s the reason: they’re both top downers.


The bottom upper strives to be honest in how he communicates with others. He tries to tell the truth, to the best of his knowledge and belief. He tries to be polite, even if he doesn’t always succeed. He generally respects others’ freedom of speech, and their right to differ from his ideas. When he disagrees, he does his best to respond with logic and reason. If he has to go on the attack, he attacks the message, not the messenger. And, once convinced that he has made an error, he is willing to accept the fact, and move on.

The top downer, on the other hand, likes to parrot the party line, without regard for its truth. This explains why, as Terry Pratchett pithily put it: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” For it’s much easier and quicker to parrot a lie than to separate out truth from untruth. Moreover, the top downer often repeats the same dubious arguments again and again in slightly different guises. When he is wrong, he almost never accepts it. He projects his own failings on to others, for example by calling his opponents “deniers” when he is the one denying the truth. If he can’t shoot down the message, he will try to shoot the messenger instead. When he fails to get his message across, he will often shout louder. And if all else fails, he will try to shut down the freedom of speech of those who argue against him.

Education and media

Young children start their lives thinking bottom up. Until they have acquired language, they have no other way of making sense of the world. And they have a natural curiosity and a desire to learn. Some retain this curiosity throughout their lives; others, unfortunately, lose it.

The bottom upper sees education as a process of nurturing this natural curiosity. For him, education should do exactly what the word “educate” means; it should lead out the human being from the child. It should teach him to think for himself. It should teach him how to learn, and thus give him the tools to teach himself. And it should encourage him to seek information, in whatever media it is available. To evaluate it, and make judgements on it. And to reject, or at least to try to subtract out the biases from, “information” which is politically charged, or doesn’t measure up to his standards of accuracy and honesty.

In contrast, the top downer sees education as, at best, preparing an individual for life in a particular culture. But more often, in the hands of top downers education becomes a process of indoctrination, to turn the child away from his natural bottom up mode and make him into a top down thinker. And this may even turn him in later life into a peddler of top down thinking. Moreover, top downers tend to see the media, not as the source of reliable information it ought to be, but as a means of influencing and even controlling people’s thinking right through their lives. And some of them learn how to make use of the media to spread their own top down messages; including messages that are politically charged, lies, propaganda and so called fake news.

The great divide

It’s plain that, in every one of the dimensions I’ve looked at here, there’s a big divide between bottom uppers and top downers. But different people often think in different ways in different dimensions. Many academics, for example, can think bottom up within their specialities, but when it comes to politics and government, they think top down. I see a need, therefore, for an overall measure of bottom up versus top down. An approach such as rating each dimension separately, then adding up the ratings and dividing by the number of dimensions, is probably over-simple. But however the measuring is done, it’s plain that there’s still a big, big divide.

We are living in a time when virtually every powerful institution in the world is run by top downers. For example: big governments, big corporations, the EU and the UN, big media, and much of academe. They are run, not by the people for the people, but by top downers for top downers; or even by sociopaths for sociopaths.

In this system, we bottom uppers don’t get a look in. Even though we are the honest, productive people of the world; we are the people who build, and who sustain, our human civilization. And it’s worse. Our rights and freedoms, our livelihoods, our lifestyles and ultimately our lives, are under ever increasing pressure from the top downers and their political agendas. This situation is not, to use a top downer word, a sustainable one.

I wonder what will happen when the penny finally drops? When bottom uppers, en masse, come to understand what is being done to them? When the good people at last realize that the top downers are not only unworthy of all respect, but are the worst scum on the planet?

I can only speculate.

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Tom Halla
October 22, 2017 4:28 pm

Interesting essay, but classical liberalism/libertarianism is not a common, or ancient, or obvious belief system, even if labeled “bottom-up” thinking. Tribalism is much more common than either bureaucratic authoritarianism, which he labels “top-down” thinking.

Reply to  Tom Halla
October 22, 2017 6:23 pm

I was getting too much, everything about my way of thinking is good. Everything about the other is bad.
Made the article impossible to finish.

Reply to  MarkW
October 22, 2017 10:05 pm

I could not get past the assertion that bottom-uppers assume everyone in the world is just like them, or else some rare aberration.
Why would anyone, using logic, start out with the assumption that there is one basic model of the human psyche, or that oneself is a prototypical example.
This strikes me as neither bottom up or logical…more like closed minded, judgmental, and biased.

Reply to  MarkW
October 22, 2017 10:47 pm

A shallow and narcissistic attempt at philosophy. If he thinks that Neil Lock is almost that same John Locke in spelling, that’s probably all we need to know.

BTW when you build a house, you start at the top. You want a house. You then decide what kind of house, what it will look like and what materials you have available or want to use. You make an overall plan. Then a detailed plan.

Only then do you start digging and laying the foundations.

Mr Lock’s philosophy falls at the first line.

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  MarkW
October 23, 2017 1:58 am

“Made the article impossible to finish.”

Same here. Artificial characterization that is just wrong. Anyone who has designed and built things (physical and/or virtual) knows planning is from the top, down; building is from the bottom, up.

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  MarkW
October 23, 2017 2:56 am

When no link is given to an article’s source, I generally like to search for a text phrase from the article to find where else it’s posted. “Two diametrically opposed ways of thinking” wasn’t specific enough (“Should You Masturbate Before a Date?” was obviously noise), so I added more words and narrowed it down to just 3 web sites.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  MarkW
October 23, 2017 6:47 am

“BTW when you build a house, you start at the top. You want a house. You then decide what kind of house, what it will look like and what materials you have available or want to use. You make an overall plan. Then a detailed plan.”

You do know that planning and building are two different things, right?

Reply to  MarkW
October 23, 2017 6:54 am

Jeff, if you had included the next line in the quote, you would have completely refuted your point.

October 22, 2017 4:31 pm

Reply to  John G Spritzler
October 22, 2017 10:07 pm

What is up with posting an link to an hour long video that is completely off topic and has not a single word of explanation?
This would seem to violated site policy several times over.

Reply to  menicholas
October 22, 2017 11:30 pm

maybe OT but a lot more interesting.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  menicholas
October 23, 2017 6:49 am

Agree, Menicholas. Happens a lot here.

The Reverend Badger
Reply to  menicholas
October 23, 2017 10:57 am

Site policy is very fluid on WUWT. Who knows what will pass or get binned. Maybe Charles is busy, maybe Anthony had too much coffee, you just never know. Many of my comments have been binned simply for using (I guess) a particular word (No, it’s not cnut, it rhymes with depravity).

Anyway its the same with any media, if you don’t like it don’t read it, move on, turn the page or even turn the whole bloody computer off and go and do something more useful instead like construct a tray of ice in your garden and measure the magnitude of the back radiation when the sun sets.

Curious George
October 22, 2017 4:34 pm

A problem with a top-down design is that it has to be well thought of. There is a story of a guy who wanted to sell hats. He designed a store with three departments: Big Hats, Straw Hats, and Red Hats.

Reply to  Curious George
October 22, 2017 5:47 pm

A former boss of mine said that you design from the top down but build from the bottom up.

Reply to  PiperPaul
October 22, 2017 6:23 pm

My experience also. Business strategy is necessarily top down, because operations become blind to peripheral forces. But strategy execution is necessarily bottom up, accounting for all the local confounding details. We had a consulting saying at BCG: top down, bottom up, middle out. The middle out part had teo meanings. 1. Cut middle management out ( meaning less is more. 2. Use the remaining middle managment to drive bottom up best practices out to all other bottom up endeavors.

Reply to  PiperPaul
October 22, 2017 6:24 pm

In all big projects, you start out with the big picture, then you fill in the details.
The problem with bottom up design is you often forget what it was you were trying to build long before you are finished.

Reply to  PiperPaul
October 22, 2017 7:06 pm

Aye! PiperPaul, ristvan and MarkW.

That approach is a necessity.

Cars are not designed starting with wheels.
Airplanes are designed starting with seats.
Ships are not designed starting with propellers.
Spacecraft are not designed starting with the rocket engine.
Programs designed starting with the code never reach proper fruition.

One must decide
A) what is needed
B) How it should work
C) What it must accomplish
D) Ideally, one decides ease of use. But often the guts of the design are the final determination on what something requires to function properly.

Claiming that designs must originate from the bottom up ignores design targets, requirements, time available, time required, costs, funding, usage, users and customers. Ignoring any one can cause failure.

Reply to  PiperPaul
October 22, 2017 11:20 pm

“Cars are not designed starting with wheels.”

Well they did start with the invention of the wheel and then steam and oil for the horseless carriage and so it’s correct to say these things were designed from the bottom up. Just that we’re forever taking the rising bottom for granted nowadays. Nevertheless when you have a thought bubble that wind and solar generated power can replace despatchable thermal power you’d better understand the bottom line and not go off half cocked with only the top down vision splendid in mind- i.e. it’s a fundamental axiom of engineering that you can’t build a reliable system from unreliable componentry so temper the top down imagineering accordingly.

Reply to  PiperPaul
October 23, 2017 6:57 am

observa, if you read all of what others are saying, you will find out that your observation does not contradict anything that has been said.

October 22, 2017 4:35 pm

Nice essay! Your characterization of Marxists is spot on. I’m a bottom upper and my approach to the issues Marxists weigh in on is egalitarianism as discussed on my website, https://www.pdrboston.org .

The Reverend Badger
October 22, 2017 4:50 pm

You can see the different approaches in a TV programme called “The Apprentice”. I am trying to think of a useful test for individuals to check which approach they favour. Give them something they are not familiar with, perhaps cooking a 4 course meal?

Reply to  The Reverend Badger
October 22, 2017 5:31 pm

The bottom upper would just start randomly cooking things until he got to 4 things; the top downer would think about what would go together for a nice meal and then cook them.

Nick Stokes
Reply to  The Reverend Badger
October 22, 2017 5:37 pm

The top downer is the guy who says “You’re fired!”.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 7:34 pm

“You’re fired!” Really? Trump is not a top downer. Methinks you are, however.

Nick Stokes
Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 7:44 pm

“Trump is not a top downer.”
Really? Trump of Trump Tower?

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 23, 2017 1:35 am

Yes Nick – inevitable after top downers saying “You’re hired!” to practically everything with two legs – little chicken and ladders included. Imagine the current starting the same, but with your money.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 23, 2017 2:23 am

Top Down you mean like Climate Science which has gone where no science has gone before now as an “Authority” no less. I like my science old fashioned where we just presented facts and hypothesis for testing and argued over them.

Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 5:10 pm

“Bottom up thinking is like the way we build a house. Starting from the ground, we work upwards, using what we’ve done already as support for what we’re working on at the moment. “
This is a ridiculously judgmental and tribalist approach. Bottom up and top down are just dual ways of thinking. We need both. Builders don’t just start building from the bottom. They have a plan, from a designer. And the designer started with some top down considerations – how big a house – what cost – for what purpose? You can’t work those out afterwards.

Bottom up and top down are actually two recognised approaches to programming. Again you need both, although I think most would start from a top down framework.

“Moreover, top downers are very often dishonest. They seem to have no shame about lying or misleading, or failing to deliver on their promises. And they often act in bad faith, too.”
Just nuts.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 5:27 pm

Sounded quite accurate to me. I believe the author did note that these are extremes, and that most people lie more to the middle.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 5:46 pm

I agree. Both are essential, the squabble lies in how much of each goes into the synthesis.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 6:19 pm

Nick writes

I think most would start from a top down framework.

Unless the programmer really understood the underlying reasons for doing the programming. ie. understood the detail, in which case knowing the detail may point to a different overall approach that may be unseen to a person who only has a high level, top down approach and understanding of a problem.

I agree that measures of both are needed but at the end of the day the more underlying knowledge you have, the better off you’ll be and the better result you’ll produce.

Reply to  TimTheToolMan
October 22, 2017 6:31 pm

When I was in the aviation industry, design for a new plane and it’s avionics would start top down.
The customer would start with a design requirement. I want a plane that can carry X passengers Y miles in less than Z hours.
Then the designers would determine the broad outlines of a plane that could meet those criteria.
Then the designers would determine what broad functions such a plane would need to perform those functions.
With each iteration, the design would get more and more specific, until every physical widget and every module of software was specified.

Only then did you actually start designing the plane and writing the software.

Reply to  TimTheToolMan
October 22, 2017 6:57 pm

MarkW writes

Only then did you actually start designing the plane and writing the software.

I daresay the designers had sufficient prior experience and knowledge to know that certain configurations were a waste of time to choose/explore though? There is inherent bottom up-ness in your process and it came from knowledge gained from experience.

eg Nobody was going to choose a biplane configuration because there was prior knowledge about drag.

Reply to  TimTheToolMan
October 22, 2017 7:45 pm

“TimTheToolMan October 22, 2017 at 6:57 pm

“MarkW writes
“Only then did you actually start designing the plane and writing the software.”

I daresay the designers had sufficient prior experience and knowledge to know that certain configurations were a waste of time to choose/explore though? There is inherent bottom up-ness in your process and it came from knowledge gained from experience.

eg Nobody was going to choose a biplane configuration because there was prior knowledge about drag.”

At some point, this kind of distinction reaches absurdity.

To begin with, a design team meets with the customers; often over days, weeks and even months.
Drawings are produced and merits and negatives are discussed. Scale mockups can be produced and evaluated, rough designs are subjected to performance tests, etc.
Engine power is decided, along with targeted fuel consumption, takeoff and landing requirements, etc.

Throwing out a comment that “experience” discards the “bi-plane” design is absurd in this context.
It does not take experience or knowledge to discard a “rock” design. It only takes common sense.

A customer want a plane to lift XX weight, XX passengers, XX crew; it doesn’t take long to realize a two-seater biplane isn’t anywhere near the customer’s desires.

The greater complexity involved in product/project/experiment, the greater the need for solid thorough and vetted top level design.

Is knowledge and experience involved? Definitely!
Is that “bottom-up” design? Hell no!

Or are you claiming that obtaining an advanced degree “bottom-up” designing?
Or is working from a clerk/laborer position up to management bottom-up designing?
Never mind the sweat labor and years of night school required to achieve that higher position.

Most of my life, no matter where I worked, workers claimed to “know better” how a program/product/whatever should be built.
What they could offer of value is from something known as “hindsight”. Wonderful useless thing, hindsight.
Extremely rarely, does a workerbee offer a legitimate valid suggestion early in a design/build.

Once upon a time, I worked as a janitor at Raytheon. (Hey, I liked to eat and sleep in a bed.)
Before we clocked in, we’d wait in a cafeteria corner. Usually, one of the older guys would start to rant on about what the company was doing wrong and could do better.
It was mostly utter BS. None of us low level workers know what management was working on, developing or bidding on contracts.

One interesting side of being a janitor was that we received a lot of overtime hours when a contract or contract phase ended. For that was when Raytheon eliminated staff; whole floors would be either fired or laid off. The better workers would be laid off. Poorer workers canned outright.

We janitors and occasional alleged geniuses would move all of the furniture, strip and rewax floors, then lay out the furniture according to plan sent down from the top.
None of the alleged geniuses ever spotted an approaching RIF beforehand.

Nice to see Nick contributing!

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 22, 2017 8:08 pm

The author described his method in a very positive light compared to the opposite. Top down is an extremely important approach for analyzing data and observations against fundamental truths. The problem comes when people utilize top down thinking based on beliefs instead of truths. That can cause people to do strange things – like changing data to match their beliefs.

Reply to  Steve
October 23, 2017 7:04 am

Top down design can’t be a one shot thing. After the manager has set out a vision he has to monitor the work being done. Sometimes problems can be solved by assigning more resources to the problem. Sometimes problems can be solved by assigning different people to the problem. Sometimes the problem can’t be solved and the design has to be rethought.

Mark L Gilbert
Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 23, 2017 8:27 am

at the risk of agreeing with Nick,
This smacks badly of trying to fit everything into one of two categories, and these scenarios are not binary by nature.

Interesting thought exercise but I too got lost in the weeds about halfway.

My biggest pet peeve is Objective and Subjective but you don’t want to get me started with that.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 23, 2017 4:13 pm

The founders of Agile are strong proponents of bottoms-up, executed by people who have the skills and experience to make it work right. Not by beginners working alone.

They said they were trying to avoid the world of Dilbert. That world is one way the tops-down can play out. But I presume you don’t find that comic amusing.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
October 24, 2017 7:31 pm

I’d really like to watch you building a house by somehow fixing the roof in thin air, then building the top floor and working downwards and after you’ve built the cellar you dig the hole for the fundaments as finishing step! OF COURSE one builds a house bottom-up, gravity, if nothing else, would preclude one from doing otherwise LOL

October 22, 2017 5:11 pm

Well, it’s food for thought, but I think there is a bit of circular logic in this article. Everything disagreed with tends to be ascribed to top-down, hence the conclusion that top downers are scum. I think it comes off the rails right at the beginning with : Top down thinking, on the other hand, starts out from an idea that is a given.“. I would have thought that Einstein’s theories came from top-down thinking, where he starts with an idea (that is in no way a given) and then works down from the idea to the nitty-gritties. That was in the field of science, of course, but in the field of politics the article, to my mind, confuses top-down with authoritarianism. There is plenty of scope for very constructive top-down political thinking which is not authoritarian – for example concepts like do-as-you-would-be-done-by, that most human beings are naturally good, that others’ ideas may be equal to or better than ones own, etc. I don’t think that these concepts can only be arrived at by a process in which a person “will look into himself, and judge what he finds“. More often, surely, the opposite is the case – that one needs to look outside oneself at humanity and the world in general, after which the specifics can develop in more detail including changes to one’s own opinions and behaviour.

Jarryd Beck
Reply to  Mike Jonas
October 22, 2017 7:09 pm

That’s exactly what Einstein did. He did some thought experiment and then forced the maths to fit into his preconceived idea without being able to test the physics. He is the founder of top down physics, which is down without experimentation, and is the very reason why so much of modern physics has gone wrong.

Reply to  Jarryd Beck
October 23, 2017 7:05 am

All of Einstein’s work has been verified by actual experiments.
How exactly has physics gone wrong?

Jarryd Beck
Reply to  MarkW
October 23, 2017 1:49 pm

Special relativity is about as verified as climate models.

Rob Bradley
Reply to  Jarryd Beck
October 23, 2017 7:39 am

Einstein’s cosmological constant has not been verified. Didn’t he abandon it?

Reply to  Jarryd Beck
October 23, 2017 7:47 am

Einstein dedicated the last few decades of his life to failed conjectures, notably unified field theory – giving birth to string theory – not really the best achievements in physics. Albert’s most brilliant work was in his youth, which coincided his life with a Serbian physicist Mileva Marić.

Reply to  Jarryd Beck
October 24, 2017 5:46 am

Jarryd Beck
October 23, 2017 at 1:49 pm

Special relativity is about as verified as climate models.

You’re either giving too much credit to climate models or too little credit to Special Relativity.


October 22, 2017 5:18 pm

The real problem is that the so-called “top-downers” have “ideas” and ideologies, but absolutely no concept of how to design or implement them or any end results of what their brain-snap might produce..

You only have to look at our PM in Australia. Every “idea” seems to be a random top-down thought bubble, with zero idea of consequences or implementation.

And yes.. the egotistical arrogance is there in buckets.. never to be met. !!

Reply to  AndyG55
October 22, 2017 5:57 pm

Engineering/design: top down
Construction: bottom up

But engineering/design has to understand construction for the project to be successful.

Reply to  PiperPaul
October 22, 2017 6:34 pm

The biggest program disasters that I have been involved in are situations in which there was either no top down design done first, or the engineers felt free to ignore the requirements of the top down design.

October 22, 2017 5:22 pm

Like his use of the words psychopath/sociopath… It seems we are now living in a world full of psychopaths. It’s become the new normal (one in which we are expected to get used to)…

Michael Cox
October 22, 2017 5:27 pm

Both approaches are useful, as with everything else in life, in moderation. We use both bottoms up and tops down analysis for large programs at my company. Tops down, you look at a market, what customers will pay, what they expect. Bottoms up, we decide what we can make, and how much it will cost. If you can make them meet, you have a program.

Bottoms up is very solid, conservative, engineer-think. You know what you can get. But you often don’t get as much as you could get with some added risk.

Tops down is great for defining a vision for what could be done, goals that can be reached, if we try harder. But it’s easy to over extend and miss your goals.

Either approach, when disconnected from reality, or each other, is a likely disaster. When properly managed and aligned, it is a likely success.

October 22, 2017 5:31 pm

That’s a lot of words, but not much logic, and it’s not a good reflection on my favorite web site, IMHO.
As a previous commenter noted, imagination and design tend to be “top down”, while construction of the plan tends to be “bottom up”. That’s just reality. As human minds work, often the solution to a problem lies in the middle of a very large, dense graph of possible solutions, and often the most efficient way to search for the best solution is to work the problem from both ends, using both top-down and bottom-up logic to narrow the search.

October 22, 2017 5:37 pm

Going to file this one under: There are two types of people, those that tend to believe there are two types of people, and those that don’t. I am certainly in the latter group. Unravel that at your own convenience.

Dr Jordan Peterson is well worth viewing on YouTube for numerous lectures relating to philosophy of post-modernism, which underpins much of the OP’s arguments for the “Top-Downers.” YouTube is replete with good commentators arguing classical liberalism, but they do not get a fraction of the views of the frivolous entertainment that dominates the platform (some of which is excellent in its own right).

Eric Stevens
Reply to  Bulldust
October 22, 2017 5:56 pm

Hey! You have pinched my old Usenet signature from the mid 1990’s.

“There are two classes of people. Those who divide people into
two classes, and those who don’t. I belong to the second class”

I derived it while reading Bertrand Russel on the subject of classes which contain themselves as members.

Reply to  Eric Stevens
October 22, 2017 6:59 pm

Ah well… great minds. Can’t say I ever studied philosophy, so I can genuinely say I came up with the two kinds of people teaser myself. I sometimes muse if there’s ever an original thought…. surely someone else has thunk it before.

Reply to  Eric Stevens
October 22, 2017 10:57 pm

Glad I read through the comments, because I was going to say the same thing, and point out that a decent “There are two kinds or people” meme does not need to be very long.
Certainly not this long.
There are not only two kinds of people, two ways of thinking, two ways of doing things, or much at all that is so binary, really.
Although it may be possible with a lot of work to break down complex ideas into a chain of binary choices.
My one time tagline was “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those that can complete a thought.

F. Leghorn
Reply to  Bulldust
October 24, 2017 6:18 am

Nope. Filing this under “there are three types of people- those who are good at math and those who aren’t.

October 22, 2017 5:40 pm

A rather top down way of thinking about thinking.

The thing you need to question is your spatial metaphor, or the idea that thinking or approaches can be described Accurately in spatial terms.

You won’t be able to see how your spatial metaphor controls your thinking. Because you are really a top down thinker.

Reply to  Steven Mosher
October 22, 2017 6:23 pm

Maybe one day even you will think about thinking, mosh.

No sign of it happening yet though.

Nick Werner
October 22, 2017 5:48 pm

I got the impression that the author may have been unaware of his own application of top-down thinking — that top-downers are lacking in virtue which bottom-uppers have in abundance. The red flag for me was using Stalin to illustrate top-downers. Why not the framers of the US constitution, or those primarily responsible for ending slavery in the US and British Commonwealth? Surely there were top-down thinkers among them.

Reply to  Nick Werner
October 22, 2017 6:32 pm

I think the US Constitution is a good example of how to order a government to handle top down duties such as keeping the states in a union, where the authority for for waging war lies, how to keep government functions under control, and a bottom up control of who gets appointed to those jobs by competent(responsible) people grouping together separately from the government to decide who will be in the government.

We’ve strayed far from that initial organization, but I think it still is a very useful way to construct a nation unless the self-correcting mechanisms are over ridden, which much of the reason for government disfunction right now.

October 22, 2017 5:52 pm

I recommend a reading of Don Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things”. Obviously, this is about “things” rather than political or administrative systems, but the findings can be applied generally to other areas of human organisation and development. You have to have both top down AND bottom up approaches to get anything right. In the design of anything in the built environment field, there will be unforeseen consequences if you don’t.

October 22, 2017 6:12 pm

Religion, however defined, is the “cult” in culture. Yes, it makes a very large difference if that religion is atheism, as in Communism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Christianity.

Reply to  anthropic
October 23, 2017 8:27 am

A “cult” is a religion-like world view that has two leading characteristics:
one, it does not accord with reality, and two, it must use a set of coercive beliefs and practices in order to sustain its existence.

When you are not able to question and examine a belief system, then you have stumbled into a cult.

At the Christian church I attend, we question and explore our belief system all the time. No one tells any of us what we can and cannot read. Many of us go ahead and learn Hebrew and Greek so we can more directly study relevant writings.

We do not tell our fellow believers to avoid others with different belief systems, or who are critical of Christianity. In general, the average person is not really equipped to argue much of anything, including being able to handily debate critics of Christianity. Most individuals would have a hard time arguing that the moon landings were not faked, or that the earth is round. This is simply the truth.

However, there are many regular church members among us who have studied, know a lot, and can carry on civil discussions and debates about our faith.

Any of us are free to “leave” the church whenever we want. If we ever bothered to officially become a member.

We are not required to pay or donate anything.

Roll is not called.

You are welcome to come visit any time. We can inform you what we believe, and why.

Our belief system is both bottom-up and top-down. I have “taught” Sunday school to people from the age of 3 years old, and up. It may be difficult to teach a young kid that 50% is the same as one-half, but they have no problem with the idea of “God.” I believe this is built into us. We have to be exposed to contrary information, and somewhere along the way someone has to intimate that faith is scornful or dumb before we really question this obvious reality.

God showed himself directly to certain people, and piece by piece. Bottom-up. Jesus created a grass-roots campaign of showing who he was and is. Bottom-up. By time the top-down authorities caught up with him, the general populace already knew.

Prophecy works like science: you have the prophecy noted a priori, and then it gets filled. This is one bottom-up way to demonstrate veracity. You can google and look up the many prophecies of Jesus, and there are vast materials to explore Jesus as a bona fide genuine historical figure.

We put our sacred writings in every hotel room we can, on TV, on the internet, etc. You can check our belief system against reality at any time. You can find and discuss this with an expert at any time. You can enter a church at almost any time you might want. Anyone can lecture and preach. This means that there can be a lot of mis-information out there. But controlling any and all speech would not work. The Lord and his guidance can stand on their own despite that type of threat.

So, a lot is similar to “science.” You get to think, question, explore, discuss, debate, etc. You are not forced to belief anything, but can be guided to beliefs that have veracity. A truthful idea will not crumble under testing, or cross-examination, and “science” should not hide from that.

Christianity is not a cult. These things I say are not true of other “religions,” such as Latter Day Saints, or Scientology: there, information is meted out piece by piece, as you “advance” as a member, they want to control your life and your communication, etc.

Mark L Gilbert
Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
October 23, 2017 11:08 am

As far as I have been able to determine, the difference between a cult and a religion is about 100 years. Hehe. Not slamming religion, as I am a believer, and I don’t think you can function as a non-believer without elf delusion.

Eric Stevens
October 22, 2017 6:15 pm

It is inevitable that when faced with a problem most people will employ top down thinking. Especially in politics, a distinguishing feature is how far down they pursue their thinking. Some stop early “Let’s get rid of poverty by paying everyone a comfortable living wage”. Others will pursue the matter further and do some arithmetic to work out how much money will be required and where it is coming from. A smaller number will dig even deeper and try to determine what the wider effects of such a move might be.

The very shallowest diggers will evaluate the matter simply on their emotional response: “Gee that makes me feel good!” or “I don’t like that idea”. That opens up an entirely different class of analysis.

Reply to  Eric Stevens
October 22, 2017 6:38 pm

The big problem with top down thinking is that there are too many people who believe it is there job to create a vision, and then leave the details to the peons.
These people also tend to punish the peons if they fail to properly implement the vision they were given. With no thought given to whether the vision was ever implementable in the first place.

Reply to  MarkW
October 22, 2017 7:07 pm

You’d probably enjoy an Aussie series called Utopia, which is based in a civil service office. It’s called Dreamland on Netflix:


As a civil servant myself with a healthy degree of cynicism, this show (and Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister) are viewed more as a training video series than a comedy. The top down policy making you were referring to is the “dot, dot, dot” they referred to in one episode, where they had a terrific slogan and title for a project, but dot dot dot for the detail, to be filled in later. We use this in the office frequently, along with “the vibe” from The Castle, another Aussie classic.

One would not get through the day without a healthy dose of cynical humour. The only other option would be to take several MinusIQ pills (look it up on YouTube – very tempting product).

Reply to  MarkW
October 22, 2017 7:51 pm

The big problem with top down thinking is that there are too many people who believe it is there job to create a vision, and then leave the details to the peons.

I think that is exactly correct. And one problem today is that many “peon” tasks have been automated/built into software while the “visionaries” don’t really understand how things actually work. So you often have software hard-coded to solve problems only one way*, which imposes a one-size-fits-all centralized type of problem solving.

* Sure, you can write your own, but it costs a fortune

Reply to  Eric Stevens
October 23, 2017 12:41 am

“Let’s get rid of poverty by paying everyone a comfortable living wage”
Do we pay people not to kill each other? No, we tax unwanted behavior. Tax the poor to convince them to give up poverty. If that doesn’t work we imprison people. If you really want to end poverty public lynchings of the poor would be very effective. During the French revolution madame le guillotine got rid of the wealthy in short order. If you start paying people to be poor you will simply end up with more poor people wanting to be paid.

October 22, 2017 6:16 pm

Like many of my articles (to myself mainly) they start with a simple enough premise, which I then chase down, and then after about 10,000 words or so, I look at all my hard work and – hit the delete button.
Neil here has I feel, done some nice logic following, and has without doubt, done much thinking upon the matter – and for that – well done.
Evidence for his supposition wouldn’t be hard to find, and all the way through would be used to support the originating supposition, but falls short in allowing all those other examples which detract or counter the validity of the supposition.
I tend more to the belief that we should be leaning towards or employing BOTH methods, and anyone that focuses on but one, will most likely conclude with a slanted view.

Strange, climate change seems to spring to mind, and I think I could use either approach as an example of proof for each side.

John Robertson
October 22, 2017 6:16 pm

Funny how antisocial our socialist comrades all seem to be.
Especially if they hold power.

October 22, 2017 6:22 pm

I gave up on the overly broad generalizations by the third paragraph.

October 22, 2017 6:28 pm

People are closer to pattern recognizers than they are to logic machines. Chess masters are an example. They can’t logic out a position many more moves than a novice. On the other hand, they can reproduce a sensible board after a brief examination. For non sensible boards, duffers are as good. A master recognizes good and bad positions because she has studied many many many games. link

When we teach mathematics, we give the theory and expect the students to fill in the details. That works for some learners. Those learners become teachers and foist the method on the next generation.

The thing is that when a mathematician is learning something new, he is just as likely to hack away at it, studying it from all angles and studying as many examples as he can find. John Mighton talks about the process in The Myth of Ability.

Most people learn math the way mathematicians do. They have to do lots of examples and eventually see the big picture. That’s not how they’re being taught and the result is that they lose all interest in pursuing math.

Our education system privileges logical analysis over actual knowledge in all areas, not just math. The result is that Dr. Mann can concoct his hockey stick and some folks believe him. A little actual education would cure the problem.

October 22, 2017 6:40 pm

Surely Neil answers his own question about why the “bottom uppers, en masse” don’t “come to understand what is being done to them?”. If as he says “The bottom upper may be indifferent to politics .. And if he votes at all, he tends to do so for what he perceives as the lesser of two, or the least of several, evils.” the the bottom uppers have only themselves to blame. It is hard to feel sympathy for someone who says that they are indifferent to politics and see this as a good thing and then they immediately turn round and complain about how the government is being run.

In general this essay seems full of ridiculous generalisations with basically everything that Neil thinks of as positive being listed as a trait of “bottom uppers” while the opposite is listed as a trait of the “top downers”. I suspect that Stalin (the only example of a top downer given) would not ” run aground on the libertine Scylla of “anything goes.”.

October 22, 2017 7:10 pm

Quite frankly, I think the whole essay is a load of hogwash.

But a bit of fun to discuss for a very short while, as a distraction from the usual AGW nonsense.

Any decent thinker is a broad mix of top, down, lateral, overview and detail thinking.

Pigeonholing is just psychobabble.

Reply to  AndyG55
October 22, 2017 7:33 pm

Andy writes

Any decent thinker is a broad mix of top, down, lateral, overview and detail thinking.

Agreed. But top down does seem to be an appropriate description for people who passionately argue the dangers of AGW on little more than believing there to be a scientific consensus.

Reply to  TimTheToolMan
October 22, 2017 8:15 pm

top.down and bottom.up are metaphoric- nobody has his top down or his bottom up. metaphors are always incomplete and wrong.
the notion the author may have been groping for which seems to resolve the proposition is
open.loop vs closed.loop., where open.loop corresponds to his ‘top.down’ concept and closed.loop corresponds to his ‘bottom up’ concept.
open loop means instructions are given which have zero feedback and therefore are completely non.responsive to context of application whereas closed loop is all about feedback modifying control as it happens.

despite ambiguities and errors mostly resulting from inadequate/improper definitions, the author has done a very good job of making sense of how to make sense and deserves commendation.
he does have some more work to do and for that i recommend visiting mr science.or.fiction’s site which is devoted to the study of the topics the author was striving to rationalize.

it is funny to see how very few grasp what he’s done. he is not pitching to the middle of the bell curve…lol

Reply to  TimTheToolMan
October 23, 2017 7:21 am

open/closed loop is independant of top down/bottom up.
All good top down designs are also closed loop for the simple reason that you can never think of everything the first time through.

Reply to  TimTheToolMan
October 23, 2017 7:43 am

you can never think of everything the first time through

Well, yes. 97% of design is iterative.

Jeff L
October 22, 2017 7:45 pm

Very impressed by the majority of commenters that in general see the benefit that both top down / bottom up bring to problems. Pragmatism at it’s finest ! My experience says the real world requires pragmatism for personal & societal success. Well done WUWT commenters!

Reply to  Jeff L
October 22, 2017 8:17 pm

he could just as well have termed his distinction ‘ballistic’ vs ‘guided’
but metaphors always open the door to ambiguity and poetry is not the tool for science work.

October 22, 2017 8:04 pm

And Not A Shot Was Fired by Jan Kozak explains how Czechoslovakia was co opted by the Marxist applying this thinking to capture a nation. All subterfuge centered around lies and shaming and the constant theme was “from the top down and the bottom up”.

October 22, 2017 8:18 pm

Another way to think about this is central planning (top down) vs. distributed local control (bottom up).

In socio-political decision making the central planners never know as much as they think they do. *Cannot* know as much as would be required to make their plans actually work.

In economics, the central planners imagine they can model human action by ignoring free will and active agency by participants.

Central planning works in engineering because there are deliverables to produce and often lives depending on the design working once implemented. It doesn’t work for politics at the nation-state level, or economics at the macro-economics level. There are astronomically more uncontrolled variables…

October 22, 2017 9:02 pm

Don’t take it personal Neil Lock, but very badly written. There should have been an introductory abstract that laid out the premise for the entire essay. It was a bit of a difficult read, rambling on for thousands of words and 55 paragraphs and thankfully there were paragraphs but much of it read like there were no paragraphs.

Not that this was complicated thinking, but that it was hard to connect all the dots because most things are not binary, or black and white. It could have been condensed into a 1/4 the words and I think I would have actually gotten a lot more out of it because by the time I got to the end, I wasn’t sure what the point was if the conclusion was: “When the good people at last realize that the top downers are not only unworthy of all respect, but are the worst scum on the planet? I can only speculate.”

Actually, I find the conclusion insulting and think we were all had here even entertaining this ‘essay’. Sorry, but I had to give it a Very Poor rating. Maybe I don’t understand the soft sciences, if this was even soft science.

Reply to  Earthling2
October 22, 2017 10:14 pm

You have to be able to spot crap at the get go.
The entire premise is made up nonsense, IMO.

Reply to  Earthling2
October 23, 2017 7:24 am

Too much bottom up design, he lost track of what it was he was trying to communicate in the first place.
When I was in high school I was taught to first figure out what I was going to say, then figure out what type of writing was best for this subject, then order my arguments, and only then start writing.

Christopher Chantrill
October 22, 2017 9:08 pm

The real bottom-up achievement is what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment (Google it) of the last 200 years when we in the US went from $4 per person per day income in today’s dollars to the present $140 per person per day. And all done by nobodies that invented machine textiles, steam power, electric power, oil extraction and distribution, the electric revolution, the electronic revolution, the information revolution.

There has never been anything like it, ever.

Robert B
October 22, 2017 10:48 pm

Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Others keep persisting with ” the science says” to which I have replied that imagination tells you what is happening. Science tells you that you were wrong.
Its not about bottom up or top down, for that’s merely how much you rely on imagination ie. logically build up an idea from previous work or start with something more original. You’re not wrong or right for choosing one of these approaches. You’re wrong to ignore evidence that your idea is wrong.

Reply to  Robert B
October 23, 2017 12:45 am

“Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge”

Yes! The Chinese seem at last to be getting this.
A few years ago their central Government was fretting over the fact that Chinese manufacturing was brilliant at copying / improving Western products, but seemed incapable of producing something genuinely new.

A recommendation was made that Western science fiction studies be introduced to later school and some university courses.
Why? Because science fiction can show what MIGHT BE POSSIBLE.

Reply to  LevelGaze
October 23, 2017 6:24 am

A long time ago, sci-fi did indeed inspire with what is possible.
In recent times however sci-fi movies are mostly political tracts aimed at scaring viewers with dystopian fantasies of bogeyman consequences of not following their eco-bogus anti-capitalist agenda.

Reply to  LevelGaze
October 23, 2017 7:25 am

You are describing the Hollywood version of sci-fi.

Robert B
Reply to  LevelGaze
October 23, 2017 11:22 pm

I’m not sure movies are needed. Just a culture where scientists aren’t divine. Respected for how they use the scientific method to expose flaws in an idea and start again rather than never have a bad idea (loved the description Einstein gave of a wireless telegraph – like a cat stretched from NY to SF, only without the cat).

October 22, 2017 11:36 pm

Mr Lock, you say, your ethics are based on: “peacefulness, honesty and respect for others’ rights”

Or as Ancient Wisdom put it: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Does it matter if a bottom-up thinker and a top-down decree arrive at the same conclusions? And which is faster?

Reply to  CommonA
October 22, 2017 11:52 pm

it matters to those who understand the distinction between morality and obedience.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 3:18 am

Well, there’s you, and there’s me, and there’s . . . [(most likely, much as I’d like to believe otherwise) crickets]

WRT the OP: Many good observations, shoehorned into a grossly unsuitable conceptual framework. Better: creators vs. second-handers (search on it).

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 7:26 am

What good is morality if nobody follows it?

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 7:53 am

“it matters to those who understand the distinction between morality and obedience.”

The false dialectic that leftist minds get trapped in – obedience vs morality.

If one is moral, then one is obeying “moral” law.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 9:14 am

obeying moral law?
morality is entirely a game of choice based on a standard of values
if you obey, you are not moral- you are a slave.
that makes you completely unqualified to pronounce on morality by virtue of your utter failure to discover it.

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 9:35 am

Well if morality is just a game to you, then you can’t really be taken seriously as a moral agent. If you choose to follow a standard of values, then you are obeying what that standard says, or else you consider yourself greater than the standard and are simply playing a game (as you mentioned), ie, pretend to follow a standard, but do otherwise. That really epitomizes leftist thinking – moral relativism that is only for show. That’s how leftists can claim to uphold one thing, and then do the exact opposite. For example, demonize killing of wildlife, yet justify the killing of birds of prey by windmills.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 10:38 am

if you have anything sensible to say, then find the right words that express the thought cogently
maybe try using a dictionary because the things you say parse to stupid.
let me give you clue #1 for free:
OBEDIENCE: compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.
(did you catch that bit about about choice in there? oh, no? cuz there isn’t one. that’s what makes it obedience. if there is no choice it can not be a moral issue, duh)
MORALITY: the science of choice based on evaluation according to a standard of value.
(and guess what! choosing not to choose (or choosing to obey rather than evaluate a choice) is an insolent affront to the concept of morality.
you may play simon.says all you want and pretend it’s morality but it isn’t. that is just a lie you tell yourself to rationalize your evasion of responsibility for your decisions because you know better than to trust your own mind.
and so i accept your estimate of your own competence and take it at face value- prima facie, even.
i don’t really care if you are able to take anything seriously or not.
i don’t care if you discover morality
i don’t care if you improve your understanding of the world
the only thing possible to get from you is schadenfreude
that’s what you’re good for, as an example of profound confusion professing wisdom – an object of mockery.
i expect you are used to it, accept it as normal and demand it as an entitlement by now…lol

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 10:55 am

rules are for those who have no principles.
it is just that simple. how you get to be so ancient and never receive this wisdom?
That really epitomizes, doesn’t it?

Mark L Gilbert
Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 11:22 am

Ooooh I love this stuff. Why is obedience bad? I think the best ethical and moral constructs (like religion) have rules (like commandments). They make it easy to use them to guide your daily life, without having to ponder deep questions. You may not need to (and some people really shouldn’t) be a detail oriented ethical scholar, sounding the greatest depths of delicate questions.
That is what cracks me up about atheists.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 11:31 am

but wait- this fisking wouldn’t be complete without one last dose:
you show that your awareness of the meaning of the word ‘game’ is restricted to the world of a child.
now, if you crave to do some following, there’s no lack of authority – but how to choose (interrobang) ‽
gaze in awe- no fewer than 16 nobel prizes in economics for it – howbow dah for some authoriteh?
now go fish…lol

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 11:37 am

hey- well, i’m still up, mr gilbert, so why not-
you ask why is obedience bad?
i will first ask how is obedience good?
this might not be where you want to go because it will require you to define good and evil- can you?
because to do that you will first need to define human nature- can you?
the truth is this is very not complicated and any 3 yr old child of 2 is able to do it.
if you have not found that to be the case- well, sir- maybe it’s hereditary? they say abuse runs in families…
and yes, i can and did and if this monkey can, then about any other monkey can too.
if you haven’t, that’s on you- perhaps it’s due to obedience rather than reasoning. just sayin…

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 12:24 pm

“rules are for those who have no principles.”

This is hilarious. What do you think principles are? They’re rules of conduct. But you probably think that they are just ideas that if you identify with them, then you are moral (no matter what you do). That worldview forms the foundation of hypocrisy.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 12:27 pm

what else do i probably think? i’m desperate for you to tell me so i know.

rules (like commandments)
make it easy
without having to ponder deep
You may not need to be
some people really shouldn’t be
detail oriented

Being Dumb for Dummies? Ad Majorem Stultorum Gloriam?
That is what cracks me up

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 12:39 pm

“i will first ask how is obedience good?”

Rule: don’t steal. It’s good to obey that rule for a number of reasons. How is it bad to obey?

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 12:48 pm

you do want it simple, don’t you?
you don’t want to be bothered with defining what is stealing and to do that what is ownership and to do that what are rights? too much work, right? let’s just hold that thought for the moment.

i believe you are asking for an example in which failure to deprive the owner of his property is a bad thing (for somebody, for some purpose) ? yes?
if that is what you want to chew on, fine:
the burglar came in and i took his gun away.
it would have been a bad idea not to because then i would have had to obey his every commandment.
so i took it and now i have the choice to prosecute a claim for harm done – and that’s a good idea- morally fine.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 12:54 pm

heh – before you know it you’ll be telling me how taxation should not have to stop short of harvesting organs cuz the law and the roolz, right?
cuz you lack principles and that’s the cost of stupid.

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 1:03 pm

I think it’s pretty simple to define what stealing is – taking something that doesn’t belong to you. No need to try to justify thievery with elaborate rationalizations. That’s what scoundrels do.

As far as your anecdote… You didn’t steal the hamburglar’s gun; you removed it from his control so that he wouldn’t harm you. And once you called the police, it would become custody of the po-po. Then they would make a decision what to do with it. Not your gun, and never was even though you held it in your hand, so no, that attempt didn’t work.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 1:19 pm

” And once you called the police, it would become custody of the po-po. Then they would make a decision what to do with it.”

since you can’t conceive of a world without mommy or nanny or somebody else to make your decisions, what else could you think, right?

if the mirror told you that your gospel was the fairest mind in the land, why would i want to shatter your bliss.
you’re blooming just fine.

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 5:07 pm

Gnomish, with the distinction between morality and obedience, do you mean the difference between mind and heart, as in Jer. 31:33, Hebrews 8:10, and Hebrews 10:16?

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

I agree with you, in that I frequently state that “You cannot legislate morality”… perhaps decree was the wrong word to put in my question, how about revelation? In that the verse said we were shown what is good, not forced to do good.

I mean, having thought out morality very carefully, don’t you want to share your wisdom and insights with someone else, or do they have to make the same mistakes and go through the same learning process that you went through?

Reply to  gnomish
October 23, 2017 8:17 pm

mr Common A, yes- i am able to parse your language because sense lurks therein.
the distinction is that of understanding vs coercion.
choice requires thinking; obedience requires the abnegation of reason; force and mind are opposites.
the reason morality can not be legislated is precisely that. a person can not be coerced into rationality; only into obedience.

and a second yes to your notion that a person must use his own mind to understand with and can not be told what only he, the owner of his own mind (the obedient forfeit self-possession) has the ability, right and responsibility to do- once he has understood the reasons why it matters.

pretty much all you need to start out with is the assurance that an objective morality exists and that your mind is adequate to conceive it. that is sufficient and necessary for a human to claim his humanity – the sapiens part which is his distinction. without that, comprehension won’t happen cuz there won’t be any reason to make the effort. the quagmire of ignorance is unsuitable for H. sapiens to thrive.
then you define ‘human nature’ and pay close attention to ‘the miracle of projection’ for it will be revealing.
once you have defined human nature it is self evident that there are things that accord with it or contradict it and walla- you have defined good and evil. in the process of doing that you discover that you can easily label a standard of values, an objective morality and an objective ethics. A-B-C. and the only difference between those who do that and those who don’t is the ones who did it – did it.

Reply to  gnomish
October 24, 2017 12:09 am

Gnomish, believing in a God who “…set eternity in the human heart….” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) gives me a reason to believe that, yes there is “an objective morality”. What do you see that gives you such a hope?

Reply to  gnomish
October 24, 2017 12:36 am

mr CommonA-
certain knowledge is well beyond the hoping of the supplicant.
i know the objective morality for which you and others pine (understanding almost despite yourself that values and the virtues used to gain and keep them are essential to human survival) and were always promised by every guru who ever came down the pike – and never delivered because what they wanted was not for you to think on your own but to submit to their wishes, follow their instructions and substitute their thoughts for your own.
i can show you where to fish. i can tell you how to do it. but force can’t make you anything but dead, a little or a lot.
you are still searching. with all the guru power out there, you have not got what you seek. what does that tell you? you’re not alone, either. nobody gets free wisdom cuz it doesn’t work that way.
after all these thousands of years, my friend- what does that tell you? hint: it ain’t there where you’re looking.
belief in the supernatural is a fatal epistemological error of violation of the excluded middle.
fatal. as in you die from it. can i haz an allah akbar?
it is all black or white- you just need to look close enough to resolve the dots.
that requires motivation and self discipline that seekers after free wisdom, sheep, followers, they are not characterized by those virtues.
so if you want to figure it out- and you can- it’s easy enough when you are scientific- your first step is to define human nature. if you get there, it will be really obvious what’s next and bob’s yer uncle.

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  CommonA
October 23, 2017 12:20 pm

As typical of leftists, you started off with abuse. Noted and of course expected.

Obedience is a choice. You can obey your boss (or the law), or get fired (or arrested). It’s your choice. But you probably subscribe to the idea that obedience is slavery and you have no choice. But that’s absurd because everyone has choice and chooses to obey or not.

The same is true of morality: you obey its dictates or you suffer the consequences of acting immorally. You simply define morality as non-obedience to law (anti-law). I’ve witnessed gnostics on Christian forums espouse this very same idea. Absence of law (lawlessness) is (righteousness) morality. And they say the very thing you said earlier to the effect that if you don’t see it, you’re not enlightened..

So basically what you’re saying is that each person is a law unto themselves (moral relativism) and following rules is slavery. That’s just the essence of lawlessness, and if we look at the prevailing current in the Democrat party, that underlies everything they do.

Reply to  I Came I Saw I Left
October 23, 2017 12:39 pm

no- you got it all wrong-

what i am saying is you are too dim to get what i’m saying, as you wonderfully demonstrate with your exposition. that means you are unfit for rational discourse (and your strutting and fretting is boring)

what you need to know is you’re over your head and should go back to the shallow end.

October 23, 2017 12:09 am

People in general all make decisions the same way. And are largely unaware of the process.
In large part we guess the answer and then try and fit the facts to the guess. If the facts fit, we. Believe our guess to be the correct answer.

In large part this works except when there is more than one answer that fits the facts. In this case we often end up guessing the wrong answer while believing it to be true. Some of the biggest f.ups in history have been the result.

So in general I disagree that t.up or b.down are how humans actually work and are led astray. The problem is that having found an answer to a problem we fail to consider that what we have actually found is a wrong answer. Even though it fits all known facts an answer can still be wrong because there are always facts hidden from us.

October 23, 2017 1:15 am

“Bottom-up” thinking tends to rationalise “top down” thinking into something measurable, like engineering a building. At this scale both are essential. However, if planetary scale “top down” thinking can be rationalised as construction engineering, what should the outcome be? Who should have a say? And who should lead the project?

Whatever the product, sounds to me unrealistic, if not even megalomanic. Even the UN Secretary-General is supposed to be, well, a secretary of the national governments. How can extending it further be democratic? And yet, the environmental policies particularly have inspired the bureaucracy into the limelights, even lower level UN “public civil servants”, to pressure democratically elected national governments. What’s that all about?

For these reasons I draw the line here. No thank you. I decline the project firmly, in the words of planetary scale topdown thinking publicly displaying toothpaste salesmann, enough already. The UN may still have opportunity to learn from the mistakes of their own predecessor, the League of Nations. And have a chance to take a step back, observe and listen for a change. Most beneficial when self-driven and voluntary.

October 23, 2017 1:38 am

Most software is designed top-down but implemented bottom-up.
Bottom-up in our society = trial and error, organic growth. It is the way evolution works (as seen by atheists)
Reality is a mix of top-down and bottom-up practises.

October 23, 2017 3:19 am

Sounds like the old empiricism vs theoretical knowledge.

In my view, empiricists are theoreticians who check their work.

October 23, 2017 3:39 am

Or as ‘The Hollies’ put it…

A song for the ill-served taxpayer.

October 23, 2017 4:17 am

I stopped reading when he characterized Marxism as “top down” thinking, as if it represented determinism with a capital D. All science is theoretically grounded, and in that sense “top down”, and there is determinism, that is to say lawfullness of varying degrees depending on the discipline. The Pragmatists deny this to the extreme (William Jame’s “The Problem with Determinism”). The Stalinists and Maoists transform Marxism into rigid precepts to learned by rote. It is always useful to read the actual developers of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels were champions of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, knowing full well that his was a “soft” determinism, an a posteriori process containing a huge dollop of chance.

October 23, 2017 5:05 am

Thank you to all who have commented. I now see that I left out from my essay an important piece of the puzzle; namely, the type of thinking needed to develop a vision of how things should be, as opposed to a picture of how things are. For example, a specification for a product. Although this is commonly called “top down” design, I don’t think of it as top down. It’s more a process of negotiation between a client (who knows, or thinks he knows, what he wants) and a supplier (who knows, or should know, what is feasible technically, in time and in money). I would actually see this as a “bottom up” process of clarifying the client’s wish list and making it practical.

I was also, in hindsight, unclear about the thinking process that develops scientific ideas, as for example Einstein’s theories. This is what I described as pulling together percepts (observations of the world) and generalizing them into concepts (such as a scientific hypothesis about the mechanism(s) responsible for the particular observations). It’s a bottom up process in my terms.

One specific response to Menicholas: I wasn’t trying to say that there is only one basic model of the human psyche. In fact, I explicitly said later on that different people are different. I was talking about whether humans are naturally good or bad, something which is right down at the level of worldview and so not amenable to reasoned argument. Someone who believes, as I do, that humans are naturally good, then looks at the ample evidence of “man’s inhumanity to man,” will have to conclude that there is something wrong with those that do these inhumanities. That’s why I used the word “aberration.”

Once again, thanks to all for the many interesting and instructive comments.

[Open, critical, honest feedback works. Pal-review reinforces the assumptions of the crowd of pall-bearers. .mod]

I Came I Saw I Left
Reply to  Neil Lock
October 23, 2017 5:31 am

Neil, I commend you for trying to shine light on a subject that needs to be covered – the two distinct, polar-opposite worldviews that are driving out-of-control political discourse. I haven’t looked into it enough to feel authoritative, but it appears to me that the two worldviews can be described as identity-based and reality-based. The former selectively uses evidence to validate its worldview, whereas the latter uses all data to formulate its worldview. That’s about as good as I can do right now.

Reply to  Neil Lock
October 23, 2017 10:32 am

“. . . whether humans are naturally good or bad . . .”

Immense category error. Good or bad for what?

October 23, 2017 6:20 am

The philosophical idea is probably valid, but I think your tone is too divisive and black-and-white, the opposite of what is needed in current US politics.

When the good people at last realize that the top downers are not only unworthy of all respect, but are the worst scum on the planet?

This thinking is “us and them”, “zero sum game” etc. The language you chose is not going to influence people who are undecided or work toward any reconciliation. It appears to just add another label to existing polarization.

October 23, 2017 6:59 am

One of the complaints regarding Jimmy Carter’s presidency was that he lost track of the big picture and as a result was an ineffective president. One story has it that he spent time each morning deciding the schedule for the White House tennis court because he got tired of hearing his staffers squabble over it.

An effective manager sets the big picture and then delegates the implementing of that big picture to those with expertise in doing just that.
Of course an effective manager also manages to progress of those he has delegated to and works to make sure each one has the resources needed when they are needed.
The point is, the manager doesn’t get involved in the detail work.

October 23, 2017 8:42 am

We don’t all share the same morals, such as right to life.

The scientific consensus is that life begins at conception. Very soon after sperm meets egg, the new, unique individual meets our recognized characteristics of “life.” But many of us here are “pro-choice:” accepting the practice of a pregnant woman being able to choose to kill her baby, a defenseless human being, for no reason (or, for some, only for for some specific reasons, such as sex-selective abortion, or aborting someone because he or she was detected to have down Syndrome, or when the human was conceived in rape or incest).

Furthermore, many of us here believe the government should pay for any and all abortions.

This is not a small matter, a small disagreement on the edges of our vast range of common, shared morality beliefs. The leading cause of death is abortion, at over a million per year. Next is heart disease, at maybe 700,000 / year.

If life expectancy is 80 years, then a man who dies at age 60 from heart disease has lost 20 years of life.

An aborted human has lost all 80 years.

Not a small quibble at all.

So, no, I do not accept the idea that “we all generally share the same morals.” The fact that this view can begin a lengthy debate shows we do not share the same general beliefs, regardless of who “wins” the debate.

Reply to  TheLastDemocrat
October 24, 2017 7:53 pm

“The scientific consensus is that life begins at conception”

Not correct! Without “Life” in general being present already (namely the life of father and mother) there will be no conception. Nothing “begins” at that moment. And the fetus growing inside the mother’s womb cannot be called a human being until it lives independently, that is until it will continue to live in case the mother would die. Before that, the fetus is no more “an individual living being” that your left foot or right eyelid – if you die they will stop living at the same time, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb, so the latter must be classified with the internal organs and body-parts of the mother, and like those can be amputated but certainly not “murdered”. That’s not consensus but simple logic.

Bruce Cobb
October 23, 2017 11:24 am

I wouldn’t describe them as “top down and “bottom up” thinking, but agree with the overall concept. It reminds me of the Classic/Romantic split described by Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One example he gave was that the Classic style of thinking uses a beer tab for a shim because it is both handy – no need to trek to the shop or order it, and made of aluminum, the perfect material for the job at hand, being soft. The Romantic style, on the other hand, rejects the beer tab because of what it is – a beer tab, and no way is that to be used for an expensive machine – how dare you even think it.

Joel Snider
October 23, 2017 12:19 pm

I’ve always called this ‘inverted logic’ – or ‘bassackwards’.
But then, I AM a layman, and I speak the common tongue.

October 23, 2017 12:50 pm

If you want to see a classic example of top down thinking set in stone (or concrete), take a look at the LBJ Library in Austin. This is the bland building with the one row of windows around the top floor. That same Presidential top downer ordered the seats on what was then Air Force One to be turned backward to face the “throne chair” as described in a documentary series on past Air Force One planes well after the fact. But then LBJ had a massive party and media base under him to shield his behavior most of the time. The architect on this library captured the top downer with perfection.

I would suggest an addendum to the post that top downers get away with a lot more things, including sexual harassment.

Grand Lunar
October 23, 2017 1:34 pm

Possibly the best article ever written on the state of affairs in today’s society!

Also gives food for thought on our individual lives.

October 23, 2017 2:55 pm

We employ bottom-up and top down thinking in engineering cost estimation.

Bottom Up: Our more junior employees are often asked to cost a job by listing every single task required to accomplish the job and costing each one.

Top Down: Our more senior employees (supervisors) are then asked to “inject realism” be simply thinking about the job from a high-level perspective, how much of our previous work can be leveraged, how much is new work, and coming up with a cost estimate.

The Bottom Up method usually results in a cost that is 2-3 times what it would take to successfully bid for and win a job. The top-down approach is usually closer to the required bid to win, but makes everyone nervous about losing money on the job.

October 23, 2017 3:36 pm

The Affordable Care Act was top down garbage/failure in waiting from the start.

Reply to  DonM
October 23, 2017 3:40 pm

Top down, taken to extreme … I’ve got the solution to the problem, now I just need to find the applicable problem(s).

October 23, 2017 4:27 pm

Neil. You haven’t thought about this enough. You are too confident of the virtues of bottom up thinking and fail to recognize the problems which can arise in then you yourself make judgements using that style of thinking . See Kahneman “Thinking Fast and Slow. ” For an example see this comment from another thread on WUWT.
“Here is part of Section 1 of the blog version of my 2017 paper in Energy & Environment.

“For the atmosphere as a whole therefore cloud processes, including convection and its interaction with boundary layer and larger-scale circulation, remain major sources of uncertainty, which propagate through the coupled climate system. Various approaches to improve the precision of multi-model projections have been explored, but there is still no agreed strategy for weighting the projections from different models based on their historical performance so that there is no direct means of translating quantitative measures of past performance into confident statements about fidelity of future climate projections.The use of a multi-model ensemble in the IPCC assessment reports is an attempt to characterize the impact of parameterization uncertainty on climate change predictions. The shortcomings in the modeling methods, and in the resulting estimates of confidence levels, make no allowance for these uncertainties in the models. In fact, the average of a multi-model ensemble has no physical correlate in the real world.

The IPCC AR4 SPM report section 8.6 deals with forcing, feedbacks and climate sensitivity. It recognizes the shortcomings of the models. Section 8.6.4 concludes in paragraph 4 (4): “Moreover it is not yet clear which tests are critical for constraining the future projections, consequently a set of model metrics that might be used to narrow the range of plausible climate change feedbacks and climate sensitivity has yet to be developed”

What could be clearer? The IPCC itself said in 2007 that it doesn’t even know what metrics to put into the models to test their reliability. That is, it doesn’t know what future temperatures will be and therefore can’t calculate the climate sensitivity to CO2. This also begs a further question of what erroneous assumptions (e.g., that CO2 is the main climate driver) went into the “plausible” models to be tested any way. The IPCC itself has now recognized this uncertainty in estimating CS – the AR5 SPM says in Footnote 16 page 16 (5): “No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies.” Paradoxically the claim is still made that the UNFCCC Agenda 21 actions can dial up a desired temperature by controlling CO2 levels. This is cognitive dissonance so extreme as to be irrational. There is no empirical evidence which requires that anthropogenic CO2 has any significant effect on global temperatures. ”
However establishment scientists go on to make another schoolboy catastrophic error of judgement by making straight line projections.

“The climate model forecasts, on which the entire Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming meme rests, are structured with no regard to the natural 60+/- year and, more importantly, 1,000 year periodicities that are so obvious in the temperature record. The modelers approach is simply a scientific disaster and lacks even average commonsense. It is exactly like taking the temperature trend from, say, February to July and projecting it ahead linearly for 20 years beyond an inversion point. The models are generally back-tuned for less than 150 years when the relevant time scale is millennial. The radiative forcings shown in Fig. 1 reflect the past assumptions. The IPCC future temperature projections depend in addition on the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) chosen for analysis. The RCPs depend on highly speculative scenarios, principally population and energy source and price forecasts, dreamt up by sundry sources. The cost/benefit analysis of actions taken to limit CO2 levels depends on the discount rate used and allowances made, if any, for the positive future positive economic effects of CO2 production on agriculture and of fossil fuel based energy production. The structural uncertainties inherent in this phase of the temperature projections are clearly so large, especially when added to the uncertainties of the science already discussed, that the outcomes provide no basis for action or even rational discussion by government policymakers. The IPCC range of ECS estimates reflects merely the predilections of the modellers – a classic case of “Weapons of Math Destruction” (6).
Harrison and Stainforth 2009 say (7): “Reductionism argues that deterministic approaches to science and positivist views of causation are the appropriate methodologies for exploring complex, multivariate systems where the behavior of a complex system can be deduced from the fundamental reductionist understanding. Rather, large complex systems may be better understood, and perhaps only understood, in terms of observed, emergent behavior. The practical implication is that there exist system behaviors and structures that are not amenable to explanation or prediction by reductionist methodologies. The search for objective constraints with which to reduce the uncertainty in regional predictions has proven elusive. The problem of equifinality ……. that different model structures and different parameter sets of a model can produce similar observed behavior of the system under study – has rarely been addressed.” A new forecasting paradigm is required”

October 23, 2017 4:40 pm

I come a little late to this, but I have come to the conclusion that the concept of Rights – of absolute moral standards which it is “wrong” to contravene, must have as its foundation, an exogenous moral law.

If Rights are not absolute, then it is not “wrong” for another party – be it autocratic or majority government – to deny them. If Rights are not absolute, then they are not really “Rights” at all, but merely privileges granted by whoever has the power, at their convenience.

The same applies to all morality. If there is no absolute moral law, then morality rests on nothing more solid than utility – good results and good feelings. YOU may feel that it is bad to murder, rape and steal, but why should a Viking, for whom murder, rape and theft were highly beneficial?

We must take care, in such debates, to question our own understanding of the origins of what we think to be morally appropriate. The author here makes approving mention of what is often known as “The Golden Rule” or “treat others as you would like others to treat you”. The problem is that while this is a line of thinking that is endemic to those cultures that have been heavily influenced by the Judaeo/Christian tradition, it is not universal. The same goes for the belief in the inherent value of the individual. It may be that many of us consider such ideas to be inherent to all humanity, because we have little experience of cultures that lack them….. and have not pause to consider that what we consider “natural” is an artifact of our culture.

How do we reconcile this with our desire for a “bottom-up” approach? Is it possible that rejecting the possibility that morality requires what might be thought of as the ultimate “top-down”, is about as clever as rejecting the laws of physics and chemistry.? Or that the value of the “bottom-up” , itself, requires some belief in absolutes?

Mike Bryant
October 23, 2017 7:55 pm

Top down, bottom up, open loop, closed loop, identity based, reality based… all are much food for thought. Of course there aren’t only two kinds of people, however this discussion has been enlightening. I’m sure that a more enlightening less divisive article could be written. Maybe in a few years I will be able to process all the excellent thoughts expressed here. The I’ll write an article. 🙂

Mike Bryant
October 23, 2017 10:00 pm

Most people have common sense. Most people have a sense of justice. We have been gas lighted. We have been fooled. We have been led to believe things counter to common sense and justice. Our phone screens, our computer screens, our television screens and our movie screens have created a false reality that, even though we see through it, makes us afraid to speak up. We are afraid to tell the truth. We, who realize that our identity IS our reality, are afraid, sometimes, to be politically incorrect. We are afraid we’ll lose our jobs, our children will suffer, we’ll be attacked. Thankfully, those perceptions are changing because of Brexit, Trump and, yes, Anthony Watts. Speak up. Don’t be afraid. We only have our country and our lives to lose if we remain silent.

Reply to  Mike Bryant
October 24, 2017 12:15 am

Mike….. Your response seems contradictory. If most people had common sense, then surely it would be far more difficult to fool the majority.

History suggests rather strongly that humanity makes the same mistakes again and again.

Mike Bryant
Reply to  PeterW.
October 24, 2017 5:07 am

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”.

October 24, 2017 12:11 am

I think that I missed one of the most basic questions…. how do we determine what IS “good” or “bad”, without a “top-down” exogenous moral standard.

…… and another. If people are “essentially” good ( however you define good) then why does it take so much effort to teach children to behave? Likewise, why do we find that societies that deleberately reject the moral standards to be found in the more beneficial religions, tend to end up worse, not better?

October 24, 2017 3:52 am

The major impact this long essay had on me was to highlight how refreshing it is to read something that is completely grammatically correct, including spelling. I found that I could relax my mental filters and think solely about the contents of the essay rather than the way it was constructed or presented. Thank you, Neil.

My irritation at the nearly randomly distributed apostrophes that characterise some articles and /many/ comments in this otherwise admirable blog needed the mollification provided by Neil’s piece. ” It’s ” means ” It is ” or ” it has ” . It does /not/ mean ” belonging to It ” . Our language provides for this with ” its “, which does mean belonging to it. Not many would think of using ” hi’s ” for ” belonging to him”, would they?

I shall need to think a bit more about the impact of the TD and BU approach to people, and where I fit into the spectrum. I have some views, well supported by practical analyses of climate related data, that I have tried hard, without success, to promote. Maybe I should adjust my TD/BU ratio.

Paul Chernoch
October 24, 2017 8:47 am

I am reminded of the story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John, and Jesus’ words to her accusers:

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

For me, the key phrase is “the older ones first”. When I was a teenager, I considered myself good and a paragon of virtue. I believed that if everyone were like me, the world would be a better place. Now I am in my fifties. I long ago stopped believing in my inherent goodness. My flaws become more apparent to me with each passing year. Though I do not smoke, seldom drink, never get drunk, never do drugs, do not rob, get in fights or kill, remain faithful to my first wife, don’t abuse my children, pay my taxes and give to charity, attend church regularly and apply myself conscientiously at work, care for my aging father when needed and do other things that may deserve merit, still I know how far I fall short. If I were in that crowd in ancient Judea, I would be one of those older ones who left first, because age has taught me, and I have learned, that we humans are all prone to moral shortcomings, and those shortcomings vary from person to person. Not everyone thinks like I do, and I am no longer surprised that that is the case. (I ride public transportation every day and have for decades. I am gregarious and talk to everyone, including the drunks, drugies, college professors, programmers, tourists, – everyone. It is an education.) I hope the author writes a follow up in twenty years. Maybe his opinion will have changed by then.

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