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

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

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.

But with the recent revolution in science regarding endocrine disrupting chemicals and how even minute exposures in utero at certain developmental windows can have lifelong impacts, we have come to realize that simply collecting more and more data is not adequate. In other words, what seemed like a puzzle—using Gladwell’s framing—has transformed into a mystery.

In fact, the magnitude of information we have is so vast, and growing daily, that our greater challenge is not uncovering more, but making sense of what we have—and in turn, acting on it effectively. Public health policies and legal structures are still based on old toxicological and risk assessment methods that do not incorporate systems thinking and cumulative impacts. This means that we are not addressing the realities of the human experience across the lifespan–including the myriad and interacting factors from socioeconomic status to toxic exposures that impact our health. In short, the real problem is that we, collectively, aren’t making very good use of what we know.

More skilled and wise discernment is clearly needed. As partners of CHE, you are already working to solve this increasingly complex mystery using a variety of strategies. As collaborators in this process and given your own expertise, your ideas about how CHE might be more effective in our collective efforts would be greatly welcomed. To that end, please take a few moments to respond to our survey delivered to your email inbox, if you haven’t already (open until September 19th). As CHE moves towards its 10th anniversary, your insights and ideas will help inform and enrich our deliberations at the upcoming retreat of the core leadership of CHE in October.

Many thanks for your ongoing contributions, dedication and partnership,
Elise

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4 thoughts on “From Puzzle to Mystery: More Data Isn’t Enough to Address Public Health Problems

  1. Elise, I appreciate your analysis, however, I feel you are being too kind. Some of us believe that we have sufficient information to understand the association between exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals and increased risk for adverse outcomes, especially to the developing fetus. In light of the information we already have, we should be applying the precautionary principle in the use of these chemicals, while further knowledge is gained from more studies.

    A big part of the problem is that the corporations that profit from the use of these chemicals, without sufficient regulations, set artificial barriers requiring more information before action is taken in setting regulations. Add to that the fact that the political leadership is influenced (to say the least) by the interests of these large corporations and willing go along with this ruse of needing more data before we take action.

    For me the puzzle or mystery is determining what it will take to change the way our system operates — that allows harmful exposures to continue in the face of evidence that suggest (or shouts) taking protective action until we know there is no harm (or minimal risk of harm) from exposure.

    • Thank you, Michael. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. The Endocrine Society’s report in 2009 on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (among other notable statements by experts in the field in recent years) eloquently affirmed the need to implement the precautionary principle at all levels of decision-making. You are right: That is no mystery. “Determining what it will take to change the way our system operates,” as you suggest, is the greater challenge–and that is what we need urgently to discern and act on now. Your collaboration in this quest is greatly welcomed.
      Elise

  2. Hi Elise. Count me in as one of the colleagues who is interested in participating in this effort, as I can. I am in Oregon and I work on related issues. Thanks for being a leader.

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