Mystery Hunt and the Scientific Endeavour

by Edward Z. Yang

It can be hard to understand the appeal of spending three days, without sleep, solving what some have called “the hardest recreational puzzles in the world,”; but over this weekend, hundreds of people converged on the MIT campus to do just that, as part of MIT Mystery Hunt. To celebrate the finding of the coin, I'd like to share this little essay that I found in my files, which compares Mystery Hunt and the scientific endeavour. (If you are not familiar with Mystery Hunt, I recommend listening to the linked This American Life program.)

Thomas Kuhn, in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, states that “normal science” is “puzzle solving”: what he means is that the every day endeavors of scientists are the addressing of small, tractable problems, these problems are “puzzles” not “grand mysteries of the universe.” Kuhn goes on to describe what is involved with normal science: generation of facts, increasing the fit between theory and observation, and paradigm articulation. We will see that, as one might expect, these activities are part of “normal” puzzle solving. But (perhaps more unexpectedly) Popperian falsification and Kuhnian revolutions also have something to say about this situation. There are limits to the analogy of puzzles to science, the perhaps most striking of which is that a puzzle has a single, definite solution. But because it is not possible to call up the puzzle writers midway through a puzzle and ask them, “Am I on the right track?” (you are only allowed to phone in the final answer) the intermediate steps still are somewhat informative of the practice of science. In this context, I argue that Popper assumes a microscopic view of scientific progress, whereas Kuhn assumes a macroscopic view of scientific progress.

What is a Mystery Hunt puzzle? This is a question that, at first glance, may seem to defy answering: puzzles can vary from a crossword to an album of images of birds to a single audio file of seemingly random electronic pitches. The answer is always a phrase, perhaps “KEPLERS THIRD LAW” or “BOOTS,” but a puzzle, like a scientific problem, doesn't come with instructions for how to solve it. Thus, every Mystery Hunt puzzle starts off in Kuhn's pre-science stage: without any theory about how the puzzle works, puzzlers roll up their sleeves and start collecting miscellaneous facts that may be relevant to the puzzle at hand. If there are pictures of birds, one starts off identifying what the birds are; if there are short video clips of people waving flags, one starts off decoding the semaphore messages. This is a stage that doesn't require very much insight: there is an obvious thing to do. Some of the information collected may be irrelevant (just as the Linnaean classification of species was broadly modified in light of modern information about observable characteristics of plants and animals), but all-in-all this information forms a useful basis for theory formation. But while Popper doesn’t have much to say about data collection, Kuhn’s concept of the theory-ladenness of observation is important. The theory-ladenness of observation states that it is impossible to make an observation without some preconceptions and theories about how the world works. For example, a list of images of birds may suggest that each bird needs to be identified, but in the process of this identification it may be realized that the images corresponded directly to watercolor engravings from Audubon's birds of America (in which case the new question is, which plates?) Even during pre-science, small theories are continually being invented and falsified.

Once the data has been collected, a theory about how all the data is to be put together must be formed: this step is called “answer extraction”. In regular science, forming the right theory is something that can take many, many years; for a puzzle, the process is accelerated by a collection of pre-existing theories that an experienced puzzler may attempt (e.g. each item has a numbering which corresponds to a letter) as well as hints that a puzzle writer may place in a puzzle's flavor text and title (e.g. “Song of birds” refers to “tweeting” refers to “Twitter”, which means the team should take an extracted phrase to mean a Twitter account.) Naïve inductivism suggests that unprejudiced observation of the data should lead to a theory which explains all of the information present. However, puzzles are specifically constructed to resist this sort of straightforward observation: instead, what more frequently happens is akin to Popper's falsificationism, where theories are invented out of sheer creativity (or perhaps historical knowledge of previous puzzles) and then they are tested against the puzzle. To refer once again to the bird puzzle, one proposed theory may be that the first letter of the scientific names of the birds spells a word in the English language. When the scientific names are gathered and the first letters found not to form a word, the theory is falsified, and we go and look for something else to do. This makes the Popperian view highly individualistic: while only some people may come up with the “good ideas”, anyone can falsify a theory by going out and doing the necessary calculation. Sophisticated falsification allows for the fact that someone might go out and do the calculation incorrectly (thus sending the rest of the puzzlers on a wild goose hunt until someone comes back to the original idea and realizes it actually does work.) However, it only explains the scientific endeavor at very high resolution: it explains the process for a single theory; and we'll see that Kuhn's paradigms help broaden our perspective on the overall puzzle solving endeavor.

Kuhn states that normal science organizes itself around paradigms, which are characterized by some fundamental laws (Maxwell's equations, Newton's laws) as well conventions for how these laws are to be used to solve problems. Unlike a theory, a paradigm cannot be “falsified”, at least in the Popperian sense: a paradigm can accommodate abnormalities, which may resolve themselves after further investigation. The difference is one of scope. So, in a puzzle, while we might have a straightforwardly falsifiable theory “the first letters form a word,” a more complicated, thematic idea such as “the puzzle is Dr. Who themed” is closer to a paradigm, in that the precise mechanism by which you get answer from “Dr. Who” is unspecified, to be resolved by “normal puzzling.” The paradigm is vague, but it has “the right idea”, and with sufficient effort, the details can be worked out. Which paradigm is to be worked on is a social process: if a puzzler comes in freshly to a puzzle and finds that a group of people is already working within one paradigm, he is more likely to follow along those lines. Of course, if this group is stuck, they may call in someone from the outside precisely to think outside of the paradigm. In this manner, revolutions, as Kuhn describes them, occur. When a paradigm is failing to make progress (e.g. failing to admit an answer), the puzzlers will continue to attempt to apply it until a convincing alternative paradigm comes along, at which point they may all jump to this new method. The revolution is compressed, but it still carries many common traits: including the lone puzzler who still thinks the old method will admit an answer with “just a little more work.” (Sometimes they're right!)

We see a striking correspondence between the activities of a scientist working in a lab, and the activities of a scientist working on a Mystery Hunt puzzle. If you'll allow me to indulge in a little psychoanalysis, I think this similarity is part of the reason why Mystery Hunt is so appealing to people with a science, technology, engineering and maths background: in your every day life, you are faced with the most vicious puzzles known to man, as they are by definition the ones that have resisted any attempt to resolution. Months can go by without any progress. In Mystery Hunt, you are once again faced with some of the most vicious puzzles known to man. But there's a difference. You see, in Mystery Hunt, there is an answer. And you can find it.

Happy puzzling!