What the Katrina, Rehnquist, and Intelligent Design stories have in common: Bottoms Up!

09/06/2005 01:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Your humble blogger has just begun, for the first time in his life, to post thoughts on the headlines of the day. Since beginning this project a week ago, there have been three principal stories in the news: The conflict over the teaching of Intelligent Design, the destruction of New Orleans, and the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist. Each of these has led to nasty clashes between the two Americas, red and blue. In each case, the rhetoric of the rancor, especially from the red side of the aisle, has centered on a genuinely difficult intellectual problem: whether the world is best understood or manipulated with a bottom-up perspective or a top-down one.

To explain, let’s recall the main lines of argument for each story.

First: Proponents of Intelligent Design claim that a bottom-up explanation of life is implausible. According to them, life is too intricate and interconnected to have “emerged.” It must have been designed top-down by someone with an overview.

Next: During the days after hurricane Katrina struck, top Bush administration officials seemed to be incompetent and out of touch. Conservative defenders of the administration shifted blame to state and local officials, and even to private residents. In their view, the problem was that the Federal Government shouldn’t have been relied on so heavily in the first place. Variations of the slogan, “Big Government is the problem, not the solution,” have been common. Many observers from the Right, including FEMA head Michael Brown, also suggested that stricken residents should accept personal responsibility for not getting out in time. A John Tierney column in the New York Times blamed the very idea of public works: According to him, had residents relied on private flood insurance instead of the Feds, the private insurance companies would have seen to it that there were adequate preparations for floods.

(A personal note of anger I can’t omit: Michael Brown ought to not only be fired but be in jail. Why is he still on the job? He would make a perfect cellmate for “Baghdad Bob,” another slick, professional denier of reality.)

And finally: The philosophy of William Rehnquist was summarized, especially by his supporters, as a distrust of top-down power. He is said to have been hostile to environmental legislation, for example, solely because environmental law is top-down, an imposition from Federal master designers over the desires of State players down lower in the hierarchy.

These arguments are hard to sort out because the top-down/bottom-up dichotomy is genuinely puzzling. In computer science, we are constantly going back and forth about when a top-down or bottom-up approach will work better in a given information architecture or scientific simulation.

A few weeks ago I was at a small meeting at a physics institute in which a Harvard law professor quizzed some scientists about such conundrums. Some of the most interesting physicists these days are interested in bottom-up approaches. Physicists like Newton and Einstein provided us with top-down global laws and starting conditions that worked stunningly well at explaining local events. That doesn’t mean a bottom-up physics is unimaginable. Maybe “pre-geometric” components self-assemble to create the fabric of space and time, so that the background assumed by familiar physical theories is actually an emergent phenomenon. These ideas are new and not well understood.

When it comes to statecraft, the conflict between bottom-up and top-down has been with us since the start of recorded history, and it still is genuinely difficult to make definitive statements about which is better under what circumstances. A few observations seem to be in order, however.

One is that since the topic is deep and confusing, it provides a great way to confuse and divert any political conversation. Instead of talking about affirmative action, the environment, or whatever, the mysteries of “top-down/bottom-up” can be invoked and the argument will be in the clouds for a generation, leaving raw power to be the deciding factor. This might seem a little harsh, but it is the only way I can see to explain the stark inconsistencies of opinions, either from the Supreme Court or from political personalities in the USA. I’m thinking of the usual litany: States’ Rights is fine until it’s about medical marijuana in California. And then there’s Bush vs. Gore.

The main argument for overruling local medical marijuana legislation was that it was impossible for activities in California to be exclusively local. The legal use of marijuana in one place would have effects in other places. A similar argument could be invented against just about any law supporting local authority in an ever more connected world.

The most glaring inconsistency, however, comes about because of the weird alliance between bible literalists and free market enthusiasts. If you believe the invisible hand of the bottom-up marketplace will always be infinitely wiser than Government, why on Earth wouldn’t you believe that the bottom-up marketplace of material forms in the primordial ooze wouldn’t be wise enough to make what we see? Wiser than any Intelligent Designer could ever be?

I have sympathy for those who are perplexed by the top-down/bottom-up conundrum. I am one of them. Common sense is not useless, however.

For instance: It’s impossible for each locality to have a big enough rescue force to save itself under all local emergency conditions, but a big country can have a big rescue force, so that’s why the Feds should be ready and able to rush to help a locality in trouble.

The next one’s a little harder: You can’t expect localities to be responsible for fixing local problems under certain circumstances. An example is when a local fix will be doomed to failure if even one other locality somewhere flakes out. The Interstate highways are federal projects because in order to ship goods you need to know the road will be good all the way, not subject to the whimsy or dysfunctions of a given locality along the way. Without that assurance, why should you put money into your local part of the road? Same for flood control along the Mississippi, or the prevention of Global Warming. Local motivation will falter if there are fears that local expenditures will go to waste in the event of imperfect global cooperation. (Remember Kyoto?)

Fortunately most local expenditures can be justified without worrying about near-perfect global coordination, so the invisible hand can indeed work wonders. I am motivated to write this blog even though there’s no law requiring all people to have computers.

The bottom-up approach IS wonderful, and has worked uniquely well both at biological explanation and in motivating many types of innovation in business, culture, and technology, and I adore living in a society that isn’t overly planned.

It seems to me, though, that successes usually come from a mixing of top-down and bottom-up approaches. Computer networking is a great example. On the bottom-up side you have all the wonderful (and some not-so-wonderful) entrepreneurs who have created services like these blogs. But don’t forget the top-down contributions! Networking was invented by a big government lab (ARPA.)

A certain senator named Al Gore brought all the disparate nets that sprung out of the ARPAnet into a unified whole to create the Internet. (YES he deserves tremendous credit for what he did, and it’s shameful that he is made fun of for being competent and smart. If the persona of a smart, competent politician bores you or seems unsexy or something, perhaps you prefer Michael Brown.) The Web came out of big labs as well. A lot of the layers we innovate on came from Europeans (LINUX, MP3, HTML) and I’ve often wondered if the wonderfully creative American marketplace by itself would have been coherent enough to set the stage for its own successes.

The metaphor I sometimes evoke to explain the success of Silicon Valley is a lasagna, with layers of entrepreneurial secret sauce supported by layers of governmental pasta.

I don’t think anyone knows the perfect magic formula for how and when to mix top-down and bottom-up thinking, but please, let’s stop using this important area of intellectual exploration as a diversionary tactic.