Malcolm Gladwell, Oriental deference, and the Asiana crash

I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, and often feel I come away with fresh insights into the way the world works, as opposed to how it appears to work. But I will read Gladwell with more skepticism after reading a spectacular takedown in an unlikely blog called “Ask-a-Korean.”

If you have followed media coverage of the July 6 crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco Airport, you have doubtless heard speculation that Korea’s culture of deference to authority, a culture deeply embedded in the Korean language, played a role in the crash. This theory owes much to Gladwell, who devoted a chapter of his best-selling 2008 book Outliers to “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” Discussing the book with CNN, Gladwell said:

The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.

The anonymous author of Ask-a-Korean (a 32-year-old, Korean-born, US-educated lawyer in Manhattan) begins his assault on Gladwell’s “culturalist” explanations of airplane mishaps obliquely. (I take the liberty of quoting at length owing to The Korean’s wry Canadian reference):

[While watching a tournament, I] fixate on the golfers’ mistakes. When I see a golfer hitting a poor shot, I take a moment trying to recreate the swing in my mind, trying to see if I could identify what went wrong. I picture the golfer making his approach to the ball; the stance; the back swing; the alignment of the club head when the back swing reaches the top; the down swing; location of the hip during the down swing; the follow-through. Then I think about the path of the ball flight, and try to identify which part of the swing contributed to the deviation from the intended path.

And then I do something peculiar. I look up which country the golfer is from. And if I happen to remember a poor shot from a different golfer of the same country, I try to see the bigger picture in addition to their respective swings. I start wondering if there is something about that country’s culture that affects their golf swings. In the particular golf tournament attended, I saw two Canadian players hitting a poor shot. One golfer hit it short in the 10th hole, dropping the ball into the water. The other, in the narrow 16th hole, badly sliced the drive and ended up in the woods. Quickly, I mustered every scrap of knowledge I had about Canadian culture in my head, and I tried to connect the dots: is there something about Canadian culture that leads to poor golf shots by two different golfers at two different holes?

Just kidding–of course I am kidding. Obviously, I did not think about connecting Canadian culture and poor golf shots, nor do I ever try to connect any national culture with poor golf shots. Nobody in the right mind would do such a thing. We all know that.

But if we all know that, why do so many people do the same thing when it comes to airplane crashes?

From here, The Korean proceeds to a gentle but relentless evisceration of Gladwell’s argument, citing basic factual errors, obvious but overlooked facts, misquoted transcripts, misleadingly excerpted transcripts, misleadingly introduced irrelevant facts, failure to consult or interview Korean speakers or linguists specializing in Korean—a record of deck-stacking so egregious, you have to wonder whether the New Yorker’s legendary fact-checkers were on a departmental bender the day the piece came in.

[Here] we come to the greatest harm that culturalism causes: like racism, culturalism destroys individual agency. Under culturalism, a huge group of individuals are rendered into a homogeneous mass of automatons, eternally condemned to repeat the same mistakes. We still don’t know what exactly caused the Asiana crash. But it is hardly outlandish to think that it was a simple human error. To err is human, as they say–but culturalist explanation robs Korean pilots of this basic humanity. Because of our culturalist impulse, a Korean pilot cannot even make a mistake without tarnishing all other Korean pilots.

To progress is human as well. Even without Gladwell’s deck-stacking, it is true that Korean Air had a spotty safety record. Like Korea itself, the airline grew extremely fast between the 1970s and 1990s. Because of its very fast growth, even subpar pilots got a job, and training became spotty. The Flight 801 crash in 1997 did serve as a wake-up call for KAL and Korean government, which regulates KAL. Korean government initiated an aggressive turn-around, and the safety record did turn around. As Patrick Smith of Slate put it, 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked South Korea’s aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries. But if the culturalist explanation is to be believed, none of this matters. As long as Koreans remain Koreans, they will communicate poorly, and they will be more prone to plane crashes.

I will resist the temptation to quote more. You really should read the post and its sequels.