From Puzzle to Mystery: More Data Isn’t Enough to Address Public Health Problems

Elise Miller, MEd

Malcolm Gladwell describes the difference between a puzzle and a mystery in one of his essays entitled “Open Secrets” from his recent book What the Dog Saw. He suggests that when you’re trying to work out a puzzle, you simply need to collect more information in order to uncover what is hidden or obscured—and thus solve the puzzle. Figuring out a mystery, however, is more complex. Often more information is not useful, and even counterproductive, because it muddies the waters, according to Gladwell. Instead, what is often needed is a better, smarter analysis of information already available and the ability to take effective action based on that analysis. Gladwell uses examples such as Enron, World War II, Watergate and Al Qaeda to demonstrate how puzzles and mysteries are distinct and therefore need different responses.

I think this distinction is useful to apply to the environmental health field as well. Over the years, many of us (including yours truly) have viewed environmental health related concerns as puzzles to figure out. By this, I mean we have sought more information—more facts, graphs, methodologies, and so forth, believing that if we could just bring more data to light, we would solve the puzzle and improve public health. This method has worked to a certain point. For example, with increasingly sophisticated scientific tools over the last century, what were considered “safe” thresholds of exposures to lead and mercury have dropped and dropped to the point where many researchers think that any exposure to these heavy metals can have some negative impact on neurodevelopment.

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