Puzzles And Mysteries

Along the lines of my posts about truth in fiction and causes of bad decisions, this article makes an excellent distinction between puzzles and mysteries.



8 thoughts on “Puzzles And Mysteries

  1. So… is it really saying that a puzzle evolves into a mystery when it goes from having too little information to too much information? That seems like an oversimplification at best, or just not an accurate definition.


    • I had to go and read it again because this has been sitting in my drafts since 2008! I don’t know that it’s fair to say that puzzles “evolve”. The example of the WW2 analysts was a real puzzle – the correct details would have solved it. However, in the absence of the needed details, they treated it as a mystery, where the answer could not be known with absolute certainty.

      I think it’s closer to say that one of the differences between puzzles and mysteries is complexity. The Enron issue wasn’t that investors needed more information, or that they needed more accurate information. The information was available, but it was too complex and voluminous for them to understand. Enron’s directors and CFO didn’t even seem to grasp everything, and they were highly intelligent people who were immersed in every detail. However, while some mysteries have an overwhelming level of detail, some have little or no detail. The flip of a coin very simple, and is also mystery.

      This may be similar to the value of estimating. Some things would take forever to calculate accurately, but can be easily estimated with adequate precision. Consider π.

      Now maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but I suspect that most of life’s problems are really mysteries. We’re neither omniscient to know what will happen nor omnipotent to determine what will happen, and this means that, in some sense, the next moment of our lives are mysteries. A puzzle IS, but a mystery MAY BE. We can be reasonably confident about what tomorrow will be like, and it’s only rational to behave based on that confidence. Nevertheless, everybody experiences daily surprises. We seldom really need to know the answer to some puzzle about something’s current state, we need to decide how that state (or a reasonable approximation of that state) will affect my life tomorrow. This is exactly the problem of the WW2 analysts.

      It’s interesting that so many of the people who “figured it out” spent months poring over the data. Considering the complexity and quantity of information in the Enron case, it would be interesting to know how decision fatigue played a part. Perhaps that’s the real reason so few people understood what was happening. This article has an interesting write up on decision fatigue that offers a bit of contrast to the excellent NY Times article it references.


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