Too much information (mysteries) vs. too little information (puzzles)

Here’s a great Malcolm Gladwell article with a controversial premise (he questions the level of criminality of convicted Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling) from the current New Yorker. [You may want to save a PDF of this print-friendly page as I don’t know when it will scroll behind a cost-wall — and it’s 7,000 words.] After you read it, visit the weblog of its author where he engages with several readers who challenge his thesis and arguments (some intelligently, others inanely).

While Gladwell’s article will probably first bounce around the blogosphere being described as “a defense of Enron” (Gladwell should have been on Skilling’s defense team, for sure), by the time the book comes out — surely this will be a book — it will likely be a broader Gladwellian exploration of the difference between puzzles and mysteries.


“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….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.”

My observation: What a concept. Some things we don’t know because we have too little information. Some things we don’t know because we have too much information. I think wise people are the ones who, when facing a new dilemma, at least know which of these challenges they are facing.

Sidenote: Gladwell’s blog is Exhibit A for why every reporter should blog.

Bonus: After you read Gladwell’s piece, try digging through this PDF of a law review journal article Gladwell says inspired him to develop his New Yorker piece.