The flow of reading you want to have is like the one for regular equations in a mathematical text:
For some simple illustration of a concept (like most figures in the textbook you are referencing), this flow works fine, and it makes sense to place the figure exactly where it is needed.
Now, for the vast majority of figures in scientific papers it is rather this (also see Figure 1 below):
- You read a piece of text which describes that some data was obtained.
- You look at plot that summarises the data in graphical form.
- You look at the figure caption to understand what was plotted and maybe learn some technical details about the plot or the data acquisition.
- You go back and forth between figure and caption until you understand what’s going on and can easily extract a piece of information.
- You try to grasp the main points of the figure.
- You go back to the text, which describes and interprets the data and at first frequently refers to particular aspects of the data for which you may want to take another look at the figure, but you do not have to. For example the figure below is not so complicated that you may not need to look at it again to remember what this point references.
- The text continues about something else.
- The text possibly comes back to the figure at a later point.
Figure 1: Reading flow for a complex figure. The red line depicts the reader’s focus at a given time. The boxes depict what is on the reader’s mind. Numbers refer to stages of the reading flow as enumerated in the main text.
The first reference to such a figure will always be a major interruption of reading flow. Putting the figure not directly at this position but to the top or bottom of the same page is only a drop in the ocean in this respect. (I do acknowledge that the figure shouldn’t be pages apart.) However, in other respects, putting the figure at the top or bottom has advantages:
If somebody reads the text a second time and is already familiar with the figure (so they do not have to look at it at all) a figure at the middle of the page would pose an additional interruption of reading flow. A figure at the top or bottom does not do this as the page break already breaks the reading flow anyway (also see Corey’s answer). In this answer, the end of the long list is a similar unavoidable break of reading flow and a good position for the figure.
For some figures, there is no perfect position as it depends on the reader’s preferences when they first jump to the figure. Some like to read the paragraph describing how some data was obtained or the key points of interpretation first, others prefer to look at the figure as soon as they see it on the page and before it was even referenced in text. Some even look at all the figures before reading the actual paper.
If the reader has to jump between text and figure (point 6 above), it is slightly easier, as the top and bottom of the page provide better anchors for jumping to the figure.
If the reader is referred to the figure at a later point in the text (point 8 above), it is easier for them to locate the figure.
So, it does make sense for typesetters or style guides to default to figures on the top and bottom of the page as complex figures referenced from multiple locations are much more frequent in scientific papers. Exceptions from this are rare and robustly spotting them often requires a subject expert, which typesetters are not.