Puzzles vs. Mysteries

Sorry I haven’t posted in awhile, but it looks like I needed a little break to think about what I really want to write about. It turns out – I want to write about more than just policy.

Here’s the thing. These past few weeks I’ve wanted to write about something but I felt like I couldn’t because this blog was “supposed” to only be about policy. That is silly. No one reads this anyway so I should just write about what I want.

So, here we are. The Policy Scorecard is going to be about policy, sure, but also about whatever else I am passionate about that day of the week. Enjoy!

Today, puzzles vs. mysteries.

I was reading an article by Gregory Treverton, RAND’s director of Global Risk and Security, entitled “Risk and Riddles.” It’s fascinating. Here’s the distinction between “puzzles” and “mysteries” that Treverton lays out, as simply as possible:

The Soviet Union was a puzzle. Al Qaeda is a mystery.

Okay, that’s not enough. A bit more:

Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.

But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed.

This distinction is more than just academic puffery. Understanding the difference helps us respond better. For example, while puzzles are frustrated by too little information, mysteries often occur as a result of too much. The “noise” confounds us. We pay attention to the wrong details and lose our bearings. Mysteries require synthesis while puzzles require analysis.

My addition – I think that more often than not mysteries are actually made up of puzzles. More on that later.

Treverton goes on to give great examples of this distinction at work in national security. Perhaps we would have ascertained that Iraq did not have WMDs, for example, if we had approached the question not as a puzzle (Where are the WMDs? How many WMDs are there?) but as a mystery (Why would Saddam Hussein claim to have WMDs? Is there a compelling reason that he might falsely claim to have WMDs?). The question changes from one about technical details to one about psychology.

I think this distinction is useful in the technology world, also.

Computers are very, very good at solving puzzles. Better than humans are. But my guess is that humans are still better at resolving mysteries. We are better at synthesizing and innovating. And, indeed, if mysteries are made of puzzles to be solved, computers will be very good partners to have.

It’s too tempting to start writing about the singularity and Star Trek so I think I should stop. But more thoughts on this later. I have a feeling this distinction will become more and more important.

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