Courtney killed Kurt. Cancer has a cure. Aliens built the pyramids. 9/11 was an inside job. Territory once regarded as the domain of your hare-brained uncle, eccentric neighbor, or other vaguely threatening social leper, seems lately to have leaked precariously into the mainstream. The idea that elaborate conspiracies are being worked upon the nation –nay, the world – seem to be accepted more and more as not just true, but worthy of vitriolic defense by anyone who might call into question their claims.
Some are simplistic, many are complicated, few meet standard criteria of cause and effect. Virtually all rely on top-down thinking.
Inevitably, a layperson begins his/her story couched in a tone meant to warn against the offending they. What they do is… They do this all the time. Laypeople everywhere seem dead-serious that there exists a cadre of surreptitious malignancy, which simultaneously means us harm, yet is somehow profiting from said harm.
Rather than attacking or calling into question any particular conspiracy it seemed more appropriate to analyze the way complicated decisions are arrived upon in a laboratory environment, the battleground of evidence-based decision making.
The scientific process relies nearly exclusively on bottom-up analysis. Beginning first with a hypothesis, observational findings are recorded, and data, as it accumulates, either validates or invalidates your original idea. Rare exceptions occur, such as in the field of biodemography1, where both top-down, deductive logic and bottom-up information gathering are utilized to understand the human aging process. Top-down deduction has also been used to study the spread of influenza outbreaks2, but never alone, always in tandem with observational, data-driven investigation.
Southern California venture capitalist Mark Suster has blogged extensively3 about the needs of top-down thinking with respect to entrepreneurial efforts. Suster, a UK and US citizen and twice-minted Internet entrepreneur, now invests in companies with GRP Partners. Suster exists as a rare Southern California venture capitalist, in an economic climate where most folk of his ilk prefer The Valley (Silicon) to The Valley (San Fernando).
“I started my career as a programmer. We did big, boring but necessary implementations for large companies. I started by doing billing systems….I spent the first 5 years of my career as a “bottom up thinker,” writes Suster.
My suggestion is not that venture capitalists somehow give rise to the idea of elaborate conspiracies, but that top-down thinking frames an architecture that supports absurd conclusions via specious reasoning. I’ll allow Suster to continue, in his own words.
“…I approach problems in a different way now. I start with answers and structure what I think the organization of the problem is. I then try out my solutions by interviewing people to “prove or disprove” my conclusions. I’m never right the first time so I spend time adjusting my frameworks. And if data is required then I apply actual data to my conclusions. The process is bankrupt if you simply tweak the data to support your hypotheses.
But applied correctly this is golden.”
This sort of thinking has also been referred to as the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. As the saying goes, the Texas sharpshooter pulls his gun, plugs away at the broad side of the proverbial barn, and then draws bulls-eyes around his bullet holes. Golden indeed.
The problem lies in the way conclusions are formed, and how they seek to indicate cause.
One famous example: the Bermuda Triangle is responsible for plane crashes. The geographical area, which fits a triangular shape, may indeed have as yet unproven atmospheric differences than other comparable areas where planes often fly and sometimes crash. The triangle shape itself does nothing, except have three sides that add up to 180 degrees and cover a discrete geo-spacial distance.
Medical science consistently runs into problems by entertaining this kind of thinking. Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study in the British Medical Journal linking the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination with the development of autism in young children. Wakefield’s resulting notoriety upon publishing brought significant attention to his paper, especially from vocal parents.
Wakefield’s results were never able to be reproduced independently (a key condition of the scientific process). Of the twelve cases studied for his paper, five cases showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR vaccine and three never had autism. Wakefield’s medial license was subsequently revoked and the Lancet retracted the publication of his paper, but the media attention gave top-down thinkers significant anecdotal ammunition to persist in the belief that MMR vaccines are somehow linked to autism, despite galling empirical flaws.
Measles and rubella deaths fell sharply, starting in the 1960s, after Merck introduced the vaccine. The only genuine threat from vaccines comes from their lack of administration. 20th century afflictions may yet find their way to 21st century mortality, if enough parents stop vaccinating their children.
Mark Suster can get away with top-down thinking because his efforts in the entrepreneurial world are perceived as lucky, effective, or successful, depending who you ask. Based on the perception of that success, Suster is well-followed on Twitter, by more than sixty thousand people.
The companies that Suster has achieved success with rely almost exclusively upon the bottom-up efforts of programmers, developers, and engineers. Yet, Suster’s reputation very likely carries with it clout, not only among the public at large but behind the scenes among other venture capitalists, making business transactions progress more speedily based on the perception of being a trustworthy expert.
If ever there were a chicken vs. egg dilemma, this is it.
If you’re an entrepreneur whose risks have paid off, then top-down thinking clearly appears attractive. You’ve left behind your programming job, you’re now in charge of a company. Now, you tell the programmer what they should be developing.
There also seems to be an element of power associated with top-down thinking. Laypeople want the authority that knowledge and expertise confirm without the work and time needed to achieve it. Conspiracy theories and other frameworks of top-down thinking offer a shortcut. Here’s the “real” story.
Popular conspiracy theories from armchair experts include: “Chem-trails,” DARPA’S H.A.A.R.P., the assassination of John F. Kennedy, basically everything Ron Paul does publicly (ever), and the UFO phenomenon.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman reported famously, during his Cornell Lectures, an anecdote when asked by a layperson about the UFO phenomenon of the 50s and 60s:
“I said “I don’t think there are flying saucers.” My antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers?! Can you prove that it’s impossible?” I said, “No, I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely.”
“That”, they say, “is very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible, then how can you say it’s unlikely?”
But, that’s the way it is, scientifically. It is scientific only to say what’s more likely or less likely, and not to be proving all the time what’s possible or impossible. To define what I mean, I finally said to him,
“Listen. I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.”
Modern popular scientists (sometimes an oxymoron, occasionally not) like the late Carl Sagan and more recently Neil deGrasse Tyson, fought for more substantial US Federal Government support for science in education programs, NASA, and most recently STEM funding (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for public schools. Meanwhile, Forbes recently reported that eight of the top nine Chinese government officials have engineering degrees. The idea here is not to promote doom and gloom, but to make a case for harder work and more critical thinking at the university level and beyond.
Based on these experiences, I’ve formed some of my own theories; that human beings are extremely effective at avoiding stress, that even slight mental confusion is a form of stress. I have come to believe that the modern proliferation of top-down thinking is also a by-product of our perpetual saturation of information (television, the web), that we need good filters, but will accept less-than-perfect filters if it helps us avoid stressful confusion.
Of course, in order to properly test these theories, I would need to delve into some serious behavioral-psychological comparative study, read up on current competing theories, and perhaps throw in a splash of neuroscience, just for good measure. But I probably won’t. I’m not a scientist. Too much work.
My only real fear in this investigation is that it may somehow give rise to yet another conspiracy theory, the conspiracy to discredit conspiracy theories.
1 Kaplan, H., & Gurven, M. (2008). Top-down and bottom-up research in biodemography Demographic Research, 19, 1587-1602 DOI: 10.4054/DemRes.2008.19.44
2 Marathe, A., Lewis, B., Barrett, C., Chen, J., Marathe, M., Eubank, S., & Ma, Y. (2011). Comparing Effectiveness of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Strategies in Containing Influenza PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025149
3 Mark Suster, Both Sides of the Table 13 July 2010