What’s The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Mystery?

An eloquent explanation on the difference between mysteries and puzzles by Gregory Treverton:

There’s a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler’s mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can’t find the right answer, you know it exists. 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, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

We may like puzzles better, but the world increasingly offers mysteries.

In a 2007 New Yorker article “Open Secrets,” written by Malcolm Gladwell expands on the distinction:

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.

Gladwell goes on to show how understanding the difference between puzzles and mysteries can lead us to interpret the same facts differently. “If you sat through the trial of Jeffrey Skilling,” Gladwell writes, “you’d think that the Enron scandal was a puzzle.” But Enron wasn’t really a puzzle it was a mystery.

In his book, Boombustology, Vikram Mansharamani sums up the Enron situation:

…the truth about Enron’s transactions was openly reveled in public filings and all it took was a diligent Wall Street Journal reporter to unveil the issues at hand. The needed capability was not the ability to find particular information, but rather the skill to assemble disparate data point into a clear image of the whole. The problem is not one of inadequate information, but instead one of too much information overwhelming the processing capabilities…