St. Louis, MO
Posted - 03/01/2011 : 9:35 AM
Two years ago, the director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Global Risk and Security, Gregory Treverton explained the difference between puzzles and mysteries in the context of foreign policy. "Puzzles can be solved; they have answers," he wrote.
"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."[i]
It makes perfect sense. Take your basic jigsaw-obviously it was one piece before it became 100 or 1,000 pieces. Or your Sodoku or crossword or, as Treverton discusses, where Osama bin Laden is. And, as the man said, puzzles can be solved with enough information. I would add you also need enough time. But you have to have the right pieces to the puzzle, the right information, or the puzzle will never be solved.
And when we do solve a puzzle we experience satisfaction, exhilaration and comfort simultaneously: in its small way it affirms that the world is an orderly place and that we can control what happens to us even if we can't control what happens around us.
This simple distinction between puzzle and mystery runs throughout our society and it's embedded in how we think and talk about an enormous amount of things. For example, let's take the words 'accident' and 'collision'.
Accidents, by definition, happen suddenly by chance and with no apparent cause. Accidents are then mysteries.
A collision, otoh, connotes physical laws, causes and effects with patterns, once discerned, that allow us to sometimes predict them. Collisions, iow, are puzzles that can be solved-at least afterwards and can therefore be prevented in the future.
If you listen to the (American) experts, it seems that motorcycle safety can be summed up in a few short ideas:
* Get trained and licensed-and keep getting more training
* Wear all the gear all the time-and most especially wear a helmet
* Don't drink or use drugs and ride
* Ride within your ability
Each one of them requires either learning or doing with the implication that safe riding should be the result. And all of them rest on the notion that both crash prevention and crash mitigation are the rider's responsibility.
Oh, once in a while someone will give an occasional nod to motorists and weather and infrastructure-but even there, the motorcycling community puts it on the rider: there was something they could've done and should've done and the crash wouldn't have occurred.
Iow, no matter what happens, it all comes down to personal responsibility. And we like it that way. Taking personal responsibility is as satisfying and comforting as solving Rubrick's cube when it comes to motorcycling because we aren't stupid. We know it's dangerous. We know it's high-risk, but we sincerely believe we can solve the puzzle-we can keep ourselves out of crashes and protect ourselves if we can't.
We can Do Something About It. We are in control-of how much information we have and of what we do. Most of all, if it's a puzzle, then collisions can be prevented. And we very much want to ride free and uninjured.
The question is: have the concepts so many have preached for so long really solved the puzzle? And that's what the next few entries will explore.
[i] Treverton Gregory F., Risks and Riddles: The Soviet Union was a puzzle. Al Qaeda is a mystery. Why we need to know the difference. Smithsonian magazine, online edition, June 2007.