I am a student of a natural science but very interested in philosophy. During my studies, I have noted a perceived difference in how various disciplines approach the explanation of data they obtain. I would roughly separate this in two classes:

top-down: In some disciplines, scientists seem to first try to recognize patterns in the data, then try to find mechanisms which generate similar patterns. I would label this kind of approach a top-down approach, since the identification of structures in the data precedes attempts to explain its origin. Examples are biology and chemistry, or public opinion polling, where various kinds of regression are often the first data analysis. Edit: I expect most black-box machine learning exercises like convolutional neural networks also fall into this category.

bottom-up: In other disciplines, scientists seem to start by shifting well-known building blocks around until their predictions fit the observed data. I would label this a bottom-up approach, since the recreation of the data-generating process often precedes (or scarcely profits from) attempts to understand patterns in the data. Examples are (I would say) hydrogeology, meteorology, or criminology.

Thinking some more, the difference may be the complexity of the systems under investigation. For disciplines in the top-down category, the processes under investigation can often be studied in isolation, for disciplines in the bottom-up category this separation is generally not possible.

Would you agree with such a distinction? Do you know of any work which has explored similar ideas?

  • 1
    You could try to first read about philosophy of science here: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science, after that you might be able to ask a more focused question.
    – tkruse
    Jun 15 '20 at 17:15
  • I think that top vs bottom is not well focused as a dichotomy... Maybe more useful Theory and observation: science is both. We need empirical evidence (data) and we formulate theories and hypotheses to describe and explain data. Jun 16 '20 at 9:07
  • The mix of the two ingredients may change for different disciplines and scientists,but we can hardly imagine that one of the two is missing. Jun 16 '20 at 9:08
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: Thank you for the comment. I agree that both aspects are necessary, but wouldn't say that the distinction I suggested above is one of observation vs theory, but rather one of two different ways to connect both. Maybe it is clearer this way: as I see it, the top-down approach starts with the data and tries to arrive at a fundamental theory, and the bottom-up approach starts at a fundamental theory and tries to arrive at the data.
    – J.Galt
    Jun 16 '20 at 9:25

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