Friday, January 05, 2007

Puzzles vs. Mysteries

Here is a link to one of the most thought-provoking things I have read in a good while. Via a tip from of all places's Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy), it is an article in the New Yorker focusing on the difference between a puzzle and a mystery.

In short, a puzzle is something with a clearly defined answer where the more information is gathered the closer we get to the solution to the problem. A mystery on the other hand is something where there is not a shortage of information. Instead there is often overwhelming information that requires us to sort through it all and make judgments on what information is important and what is irrelevant to arrive at the answer, if there is a logical answer.

The article by Malcolm Gladwell uses a host of real-world scenarios to illustrate the point, mainly focusing on the collapse of Enron as his main example of a mystery. Along the way he also throws in the question of Osama bin Laden's location (puzzle), what post-invasion Iraq would have looked like before we invaded (mystery), and the effort to decipher German secret weapons in WWII (mystery).

The net of it all -- as I took from it anyway -- is that for the foreign policy challenges we face today we have to change our mode of thinking to cope with the complexities of mysteries rather than the pieces of puzzles. It's a long read that takes some effort, but I found it fascinating.


On Enron & the Sarbanes-Oxley-type reaction implemented for financial disclosures:
[A]ll Enron proves is that in an age of increasing financial complexity the "disclosure paradigm"—the idea that the more a company tells us about its business, the better off we are—has become an anachronism.

On the American intelligence efforts trying to assess the threat level in German WWII propaganda:
The spies were fighting a nineteenth-century war. The analysts belonged to our age, and the lesson of their triumph is that the complex, uncertain issues that the modern world throws at us require the mystery paradigm.

On Woodward & Bernstein solving Watergate vs. trying to detect the Enron collapse:
[C]overups, whistle-blowers, secret tapes, and exposés—the principal elements of the puzzle—all require the application of energy and persistence, which are the virtues of youth. Mysteries demand experience and insight. Woodward and Bernstein would never have broken the Enron story.

"Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g! After giving the statement some thought--I think he is right about the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. Now if we can only decided in today's world which incident is a puzzle and which is a mystery we will make some progress. Thanks for sharing! gj