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.

What are these men doing?

To illustrate Adam Gopnik’s piece on National Geographic* in last week’s New Yorker, photo editor James Pomerantz riffled through hundreds of images from NatGeo’s online archive of more than 11 million photos. This week, the New Yorker website reproduced “a handful of particularly intriguing images” from “the photo booty” Pomerantz uncovered.

National Geographic being the source, one of the images naturally featured Cape Breton. Can you guess what’s being pictured here?

NGS Picture ID:1286316

The caption: “Men wear the waistcoat of Cape Breton’s famous giant named Mcaskill (sic).”**  Gilbert H. Grosvenor took the photograph.

* A subscription is required to read the entire piece.

** I assume the puzzling spelling error was National Geographic’s.

How to write about people – updated

When I was a teenager, my parents were friends with Malcolm Hobbs, publisher of what was then a weekly newspaper in Orleans, Massachusetts.

The Cape Codder was a respectable example of what might be called the golden age of community weeklies. From time to time, it ran detailed articles — “profiles” — of local worthies, a habit that one day generated a warning letter from a lawyer for The New Yorker magazine. The term, “Profile,” he asserted, was a trademark of the great journal, who legendary founding editor, Harold Ross, first applied it to detailed articles about individuals sometime in the 1920s. The Cape Codder must cease and desist from its use, he cautioned.

There was much clucking of tongues in Hobbs’s social circle about what seemed an arrogant and absurd claim. If memory serves, Hobbs mined the episode for a witty column about the perils of journalistic hubris.

I can’t find any evidence on line that the magazine is still pressing its proprietary claim over those seven letters. In the interview below, however, The New Yorker’s current editor, David Remnick, who once edited a collection of great New Yorker profiles, makes a strong case for why the magazine just might have first claim on the form, if not the label.

It’s full of pithy advice for writers:

Very, very often, any young journalist being honest with himself, who listens to a tape of his interview with somebody, will always come to the same conclusion: I talked too much. Big mistake….

Constant disappointment is a very good spur to sometimes doing something halfway decent. if you’re really self-satisfied all the time, you probably are a lousy writer.

H/T: Joseph MacKay

Update:  Bethany Horne writes:

For David Remnick:

The word “very” does not make your point stronger (not even when used twice in succession)—and I’m so bored of people using the masculine form of pronouns as the neutral choice. Can’t we move away from “himself” and the like? Most writers are, after all, women.


War crime – followup

The appalling Wikileaks video showing a US helicopter gunship mowing down a group of Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, two children, and a pair of Good Samaritans whose only offense was to come to the aid of a badly injured man, continues to provoke reaction. Reader Cliff White writes:

You can’t help wondering after watching that terrible video if killing has just become a game to those soldiers in the helicopter.  It’s both terribly disturbing and dismaying to listen to their casual banter as they go about their “work”.   Even when they learn that children have been injured it’s no big deal, it’s someone else’s fault.  I’d like to see videos like this publicly displayed every time war fever is on the rise in  the country. The reality is that this kind of behaviour is not the exception in war, it is frequently the norm…. Given the situation in Iraq at the time the video was shot was it standard military practice to kill anyone carrying a weapon and anyone else who happen to be in their vicinity?

Two things are important here: While the behavior of the soldiers was shocking, it’s probably not unusual. As Cliff says, when we make the decision to go to war, we need to understand that this is exactly what we are deciding to do. Second, ultimate responsibility for this travesty lies beyond the helicopter, with the generals in the war rooms.

I have been shocked at the breadth of efforts to dismiss the video as somehow not reflecting reality, or evidence that liberals don’t support “our boys.” You expect this from right wing organs like the National Standard, where blogger Bill Roggio posted an error-riddled screed against Wikileaks, later nicely debunked by’s Glenn Greenwald, who has been a one-man truth squad on the story. Among other things, Roggio and the New York Times chided Wikileaks for editing the tape, accusing them of redacting critical context. Wikileaks did edit the tape, but it simultaneously released the 39-minute original, completely unedited.


Greenwald’s coverage pointed me to a blogger called Jotman, who has relentlessly cataloged CNN’s cowardly coverage of the video (here, here, and here.) CNN won’t even show its viewers the most incriminating parts of the video. In a gesture reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s maiden appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, only far more sinister, Blitzer and Co. black out part of the screen when the shooting starts—all out of deference to the families of the victims, of course.

George Packer, a long time apologist for the war, pooh-poohs the video in, of all places, his New Yorker blog. The main thrust is that less worldly wise civilians fail to consider the context, fog of war, recent firefight, violent history of the neighborhood, blah, blah, blah, before condemning the soldiers’ actions. The blog is worth read both as an example of sophistry, and for the acuity of the New Yorker readers’ rebuttals.

The most apt response to this line of rationalization comes in a pair of unnamed readers’ comments to James Fallows’s blog yesterday.

First a question: If these loose rules of engagement were in common use in 2007, how do we explain the behavior of the victims? They were aware of the helicopter. Why didn’t they recognize their danger? [Ie, if it was commonplace for gunships to be shooting people with as little immediate provocation as we see, why did they dare expose themselves?]

Next, an observation: Door gunner-ship is not randomly assigned. It may well be that 99% (or 99.9%) of U.S. troops would not have allowed this tragedy to occur, but that simple fact quite possibly disqualified all those individuals from being in that position. (And I note this as a direct result of my Army tour in Viet Nam.) The same, of course, applies to Granger and gang at Abu Ghraib. It is possible to indict the individuals involved and their commanders and ‘the system’ without involving American troops categorically.

And a conclusion: Until one can say one would apply precisely the same reasoning and the same judgment without knowing the nationality of the miscreants, one flounders.


You might — MIGHT — justify the initial attack on the group on the ground, but the American soldiers were itching to fire on the two men whose only crime was that they were trying to come to the aid of a wounded man. Those men in the van clearly did not have any weapons, and posed no threat to anyone. But the American soldiers were almost pleading with their command to be given permission to kill them. If you are going to excuse this by putting it into “context,” then you can excuse almost any behavior.