Gladwell on mysteries vs. puzzles

As Mark previously posted, Blink author Malcolm Gladwell has a long essay in this week's New Yorker that he calls a "semi-defense" of Enron. As expected, the piece has generated quite a bit of discussion about how much Enron's directors actually did wrong. But what I found most interesting in the piece is Gladwell's riff on the different between puzzles and mysteries. My Institute for the Future colleague Alex Pang points out that the distinction is very relevant to the forecasting work that we do. By definition, the future is uncertain and mysterious. As Gladwell writes, "Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty." From the New Yorker:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are a puzzle. We can't find him because we don't have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn't a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

The distinction is not trivial…

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it's the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we've been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren't very smart about making sense of what we've been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don't.


Previously on BB:
• Malcolm Gladwell's "semi-defense" for Enron in New Yorker Link
• Malcolm Gladwell talks about why opinions are often useless Link
• Malcolm Gladwell profiled in scientific journal Link
• Enron coverage on BB Link