In 1979, the security expert Susan Landau drew a distinction between secrets and mysteries. Surveying the way that the Iranian Revolution had taken the United States completely by surprise, she noted that the intelligence community was focused on secrets–trying to understand the things the shah’s government was hiding–rather than on mysteries–what was happening in various public but not widely visible groups loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In journalistic terms, the most famous news story in living memory–Watergate–was based on the acquisition of secrets. Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official, delivered insider information to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, essential to the reporting he did with Carl Bernstein on the Nixon White House. Watergate’s hold on the self-conception of the traditional U.S. press remains significant, even as many of the stories of the last decade have hinged on mysteries instead of secrets. The faked business dealings of Enron and Madoff, and Barclay’s manipulation of the LIBOR rates, were all detected by outsiders. (Indeed, one of the reasons that Bethany McLean, who broke the Enron story in Fortune magazine, has not been widely lionized is that offering her accolades for correctly interpreting and following up on publicly available data would mean admitting how few members of the business press operate that way.)
The Big Short tells the story of Michael Berry, who came to understand that the housing market was a bubble that would burst. Did Berry discover a secret—something that was being hidden? Or did he answer a mystery—”correctly interpreting and following up on publicly available data”? I think it was a little bit of both.