Blogger Completely Dismantles Malcolm Gladwell Theory Connecting Korean Culture To Plane Crashes

Blogger Completely Dismantles Malcolm Gladwell Theory Connecting Korean Culture To Plane Crashes

MAX NISEN JUL. 16, 2013, 11:47 AM 5,697 17

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most famous popular science writers in the world. That doesn’t mean he gets everything right.The recent Asiana plane crash dredged up a prime example, a blog post at Ask A Korean argues. One of the chapters from “Outliers,” his third book, is called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” and connects pilots’ national origin to crashes. Once, in an interview, Gladwell claimed that culture of origin is “the single most important variable” in determining if a plane crashes. The chapter heavily focuses on Korean culture, and the 1997 crash of a Korean Air flight. Gladwell argues that it was caused in part by the respect for hierarchy inherent in Korean culture, and the indirect nature of the Korean language. Gladwell’s theory is that the plane’s first officer and engineer noticed an issue some time before the crash, but since they communicated indirectly to a tired captain, he didn’t notice. And because the first officer wasn’t willing enough to take control in the six seconds prior to the crash when he finally spoke up directly, disaster wasn’t averted.

Because the pilot of the crashed Asiana flight was Korean, the theory’s been dredged up again.

The whole argument is problematic, and the example Gladwell uses, particularly so. The entire takedown of Gladwell on the “Ask A Korean” blog is worth reading, but here are some of the highlights.

One of Gladwell’s major points is that Korean culture is hierarchical, so an engineer wouldn’t be likely to directly challenge a pilot or first officer. But Gladwell neglects to mention that the captain and first officer were more than a decade younger than the engineer. Korean culture puts a strong emphasis on respect for age, meaning there’s no way the two superior officers would treat the engineer the way Gladwell implies.

Additionally, the first officer and engineer were former air force pilots, and graduated from a far more prestigious academy than the captain. The captain only outranked the others because he had jumped to the private sector earlier, and wouldn’t have dismissed or disrespected their opinion.

As for indirect language, though Korean does have those characteristics, if you look at the transcript, the pilots spend 90% of their time speaking in English, which is common in technical occupations in Korea.

As for Gladwell’s thesis that Korean isn’t direct enough to communicate effectively in a disaster, Gladwell apparently selectively quotes the transcript in a way that makes the first officer seem far more indecisive and indirect than he actually was.

He takes the (true) fact that Korean depends more on the receiver’s interpretation than English might, but uses that to make a conclusion that no native speaker or person deeply familiar with Korean culture would ever give credence.

“True, Korean language is suggestive and indirect compared to English,” the blogger writes. “But Malcolm Gladwell takes that factoid and stretches it beyond any recognition. It is the verbal equivalent of a Korean woman who, upon hearing that American culture is more tolerant of clothing that reveals more skin, decides to walk down Times Square completely naked.”

Gladwell’s thesis makes for an interesting story. But it makes an argument that characterizes an entire culture in a way that the facts don’t support, and the blog post argues Gladwell did this without asking for the input or opinion of a Korean person at any point.


Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes

A few weeks ago, I attended a PGA golf tournament. You might think watching golf is boring, but I beg to differ: professional golf tournaments offer a chance to witness firsthand one of the amazing athletic feats in the world.

If an ordinary weekend golfer made ten great shots in a row, that might be the best day of her golfing life. If I saw two ordinary weekend golfers making ten great shots in a row at the same time, I would start exclaiming out loud after each shot and buy a round of beer for both of them. Now, imagine watching a hundred fifty golfers playing, in a championship golf course that is designed to leave a very small margin of error. Imagine watching virtually every one of them knocking off ten great shots in a row. The good players may hit 20 or 30 great shots in a row; the best ones, 40, 50, 60 great shots. This is why a golf tournament is so exciting: it is a collective display of perfection, shown over and over and over again.

Against the backdrop of such perfection, errors become magnified. The mistakes end up drawing more attention than the shots well hit. If all three golfers in a group hit the perfect drive, such that their balls are a foot away from one another’s in the middle of the fairway, the gallery would give a polite applause. But if one of the golfers shanks it into the woods, the gallery would exhale a downcast “ooh,” and hurry toward the golf ball among the trees like buzzards toward a rotting carcass.

I am not an exception; watching a tournament, I also 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?

This post is about the Asiana Airline’s crash-landing in the San Francisco Airport last Saturday. It is also about culturalism. The term “culturalism” is my coinage, which I introduced the concept several years ago in this blog. Culturalism is the unwarranted impulse to explain people’s behavior with a “cultural difference”, whether real or imagined. Because the culturalist impulse always attempts to explain more with culture than warranted, the “cultural difference” used in a cultural explanation is more often imagined than real. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, to a man with a culturalist impulse, every problem looks like a cultural problem.

Seen collectively, landing an aircraft is not unlike a golf tournament. It is not an easy task to land a giant, fast-moving tube of metal onto a small, defined target while keeping everyone inside the tube alive. Each landing of a jumbo jet may as well be a small miracle. Yet, like a golf tournament filled with the world’s greatest players, air travel is a marvelous display of perfection: airplanes manage to land millions of times every year with very few accidents. (Let us be charitable to the much-maligned airline industries, and define an “accident” as something more significant than a delayed flight or lost luggage.) It is common knowledge that you are much more likely to die in the car that you drive to the airport, than in the airplane that you board at that airport.

Perhaps we focus so much on a plane crash for the same reason that golf watchers focus more on a poor shot than a good one: it is a rare deviation from perfection. Like the golf gallery surrounding an errant ball landed among the trees, we surround and gawk at every minute detail of the latest airplane crash. We run through all kinds of scenarios about what went wrong, and talk about them. We explain, then we over-explain–which is when the culturalist impulse kicks in. Already, venerable news organizations like CNNthe Washington Post and NBC News are wondering aloud: did Korean culture contribute to this extremely rare event?

(More after the jump)

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In the public musing about the relation between Korean culture and airplane crashes, one name features prominently: Malcolm Gladwell. It is fair to say that Gladwell is the fountainhead of culturalist explanation of plane crashes. In his best-selling book Outliers, Gladwell penned a chapter called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” In the chapter, Gladwell draws a connection between national cultures and frequency of airplane crashes. In an interview discussing this topic, Gladwell had 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.” I will say this about Malcolm Gladwell: I like his writing, which oozes with intellect that enables him to see angles that many people miss. As a golf fan, I thoughtGladwell’s assessment of Tiger Woods versus Phil Mickelson was so spot-on that I printed out Gladwell’s quote and taped it in front of my desk. However, at this point, the record is clear that Gladwell sometimes finds himself speaking and writing about topics that are out of his depth, leading to head-scratchingly elementary mistakes. The most notable is Gladwell’s gaffe with “igon value,” illustrated in a book review by Steven Pinker:

Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective [New York Times]

Korean culture features prominently in Gladwell’s culturalist explanation of plane crashes, as he uses Korean Air’s 1997 crash as one of the prime examples. In fact, the articles about the latest Asiana crash that call attention to Korean culture either directly refer to Gladwell’s exposition in Outliers, or indirectly summons the spirit of Gladwell’s argument by invoking Korean Air’s 1997 crash.

I am not in a position to opine on Gladwell’s analysis of any other matter. But when it comes to Gladwell’s explanation of Korean culture, I can confidently say that he is dead wrong. In fact, Gladwell’s treatment of Korean culture is so far off the mark, that his “igon value” error appears trivial in comparison.

Gladwell’s Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes goes like this: in landing an airplane, especially in tough circumstances (such as bad weather, older aircraft, etc.,) communication within the piloting crew is critically important. When signs of danger appear, at least one of the two or three pilots in the cockpit must spot such signs and alert the others. Certain cultures, however, have characteristics within them that make such communication more difficult. For example, some culture expects greater deference to authority than others. This leads to a situation in which a lower-ranking pilot hesitates to communicate the danger signs to the higher ranking pilot. Some culture employs a manner of speech that is indirect and suggestive, rather than direct and imperative. This leads to a situation in which one pilot merely suggests the danger signs to another pilot, when a more urgent approach may be necessary.

Gladwell uses the 1997 Korean Air crash to illustrate this point. In 1997, Korean Air Line Flight 801, a Boeing 747 jet, crash-landed Guam, killing 225 of the 254 on board. The accident occurred because, in a bad weather, the captain relied on a malfunctioning equipment to assess the plane’s position, and believed the airplane was closer to the airport than it actually was. As the plane was approaching the ground, six seconds before the impact, the first officer and the flight engineer noticed first that the airport was not in sight. Both called for the captain to raise up the plane again, and the captain did attempt to do so. But it was too late: Flight 801 rammed into a hill, three miles before it reached the airport.

How did Korean culture figure into this situation? Gladwell first notes that in Korean culture, there is a respect for hierarchy. Gladwell also notes that Korean manner of speaking is indirect and suggestive, requiring the listener to be engaged and applying proper context to understand the true meaning. This is particularly so when a lower-ranked person addresses the higher-ranked person: to express deference, the lower-ranked person speaks indirectly rather than directly.

According to Gladwell, Flight 801’s first officer and flight engineer noticed a problem long before six seconds prior to the crash. Gladwell claims that more than 25 minutes before the crash, the first officer and the flight engineer noticed the danger signs and attempted to communicate to the captain–indirectly. But because the captain was tired, he was not properly engaged to understand the true intent of what the first officer and the flight engineer said. Gladwell claims that the first officer and the flight engineer finally spoke up directly with six seconds to go before the crash, and still did not do enough to challenge the captain. As Gladwell puts it, “in the crash investigation, it was determined that if [the first officer] had seized control of the plane in that moment [six seconds before the crash], there would have been enough time to pull the nose and clear Nimitz Hill.”

What is wrong with this story?

First off, Gladwell carefully stacks the deck in favor of case by introducing ultimately irrelevant facts, and omitting potentially relevant facts. There are several instances of such legerdemain.

(1)  To build a case that Korean Air was more accident-prone than other airlines, Gladwell begins with a history of KAL’s accidents. Curiously, Gladwell leads off with KAL’s 1978 crash of Flight 902. Cause of the crash? The plane wandered into the Russian airspace at the height of the Cold War, and the a Russian fighter jet shot it down, killing two of the passengers on board. Gladwell recognizes the unusual nature of this crash, yet blithely writes: “[The crash] was investigated and analyzed. Lessons were learned.” As if Korean Air was supposed to learn how not to crash a plane based on an incident in which a military jet shot down its aircraft. (In fact, although the aircraft was severely damaged, it managed to make a landing, saving the remaining passengers who were not killed by the attack. So in a way, lesson learned, I suppose.)

Then Gladwell ticks off six more crashes between 1978 and 1997. Here, Gladwell completely neglects to mention that two of the crashes were caused by either military engagement or terrorism. Gladwell simply writes: “Three years after that, the airline another 747 near Sakhalin Island, Russia, followed by a Boeing 707 that went down over the Andaman Sea in 1987[.]”

In the first part of that sentence, Gladwell is referring to KAL Flight 007, which crashed in 1983. Reason for the crash? It traveled into Russian airspace, and the Russian jets shot it down. It is strange that Gladwell does not mention this, because the shoot-down of Flight 007 was one of the most significant events in the history of Cold War. Lawrence McDonald, an American Congressman from Georgia, lost his life on Flight 007. The shoot-down of Flight 007 quickly cooled the Russia-U.S. relations, which was showing signs of hope until that point. But apparently, Gladwell did not find this significant enough to mention.

In the second part of the sentence, Gladwell is referring to KAL Flight 858, which crashed after leaving Abu Dhabi. The reason for that crash? North Korean terrorists planted a bomb on that plane before it took off, and the airplane was incinerated mid-flight. One of the terrorists was actually caught in Austria as she was attempting to escape back to North Korea. (She currently lives in South Korea after a presidential pardon.)

So, out of the seven KAL crashes that happened in the 20 year span between 1978 and 1997, three were a result of a military or paramilitary attack. Those three crashes clearly have little to do with pilot skills. (One may make the argument that lack of pilot skills caused the planes to venture into Russian airspace. But in most cases, the consequence of being in the wrong airspace is not getting your plane shot down.) Yet Gladwell counts the deaths from all seven crashes to make the case that Korean Air was unusually dangerous, while neglecting to describe the true causes of two of the attacked planes.

At the very least, this is disingenuous. Further, that Gladwell would use incidents of terrorist attacks to pad the stats is darn near offensive. It is as if New York is being described as extra-dangerous in the early 2000s by including the number of deaths from the 9/11 attacks.

(2)  Gladwell makes much of the fact that Korean culture emphasizes hierarchy, and argues that the captain is accorded more deference based on his rank. But anyone familiar with Korean culture knows that the professional ranking is not the only determinant of social hierarchy. Another determinant, for example, is age. Still another is the school class. Still another is the prestige of their schools, or military service.

Here is a relevant factoid that Gladwell does not discuss: in Flight 801, the captain was 44 years old and the first officer was 41. But the flight engineer? Fifty-eight years old. Nearly a decade and a half older than the captain. If you think that a Korean person in a professional setting would show any disrespect to a person who is 14 years older just because he slightly outranks the other, you know absolutely nothing about Korean culture.

Another relevant factoid? Both the first officer and the flight engineer graduated from Korea’s Air Force Academy, while the captain learned to fly by undergoing officer training during his mandatory military service.  As graduates from a volunteer academy that has rigorous admission requirements, Korean pilots from the Air Force Academy command decidedly more respect than the NCOs who eventually become pilots. Indeed, during the three years when the captain of KAL Flight 801 was serving his military duty, he would have been saluting the graduates of the Air Force Academy (i.e. his commanding officers), addressing them with the highest honorific in Korean language.

The only reason why Flight 801 captain ended up outranking the first officer and the flight engineer was because the captain made the jump to Korean Air first, and began climbing the corporate ladder earlier than the other two. But doing so hardly allows the captain to forget that at one point of his life, the first officer and the flight engineer outranked him. So again in this respect, there is little reason for the captain to be disrespectful to the first officer and the flight engineer.

Does Gladwell mention any of this? No.

(3)  Throughout the chapter, Gladwell engages in several misquotations of the crash report. The most egregious case is when Gladwell writes:  “in the crash investigation, it was determined that if [the first officer] had seized control of the plane in that moment [six seconds before the crash], there would have been enough time to pull the nose and clear Nimitz Hill.”

The crash report is in fact publicly available. You can see it on the website of the National Transportation Safety Board. In the relevant part, the NTSB report states:

Analysis of the FDR data also indicated that, if an aggressive missed approach had been initiated 6 seconds before impact (when the first officer made the first missed approach challenge), it is possible that the airplane might have cleared the terrain.

(At p. 146, emphasis mine.)

What would have happened if the first officer reacted more aggressively six seconds before the crash? “It is possible that the airplane might have cleared the terrain.” The two indefinitive words in the NTSB report mysteriously disappear when Gladwell declares confidently: “There would have been enough time to pull the nose and clear the Nimitz Hill.”

(4)  The NTSB report, helpfully, attaches the transcript of the events in the cockpit as an appendix. At p. 180 of the report, there is the entire transcript. And the transcript reveals a striking fact that Gladwell never mentions:  90 percent of the conversation among the three pilots is in English. In fact, the only part of the conversation that happens in Korea is idle banter, talking about how the company does not pay them enough or how Guam’s airport must be staffed by former U.S. soldiers who were stationed in Korea.

This is in fact a common occurrence in professional settings in Korea. Because Korea did not develop many of the modern technologies on its own, Korean professionals learn how to use the cutting-edge technology with the original terminology (which is, in most cases, in English,) without bothering to translate them into Korean. When Korean professionals actually use the technology, they find themselves being more comfortable with simply using the English terms. The fact that a significant portion of Korea’s professionals study abroad, usually in the United States, further reinforces this trend.

So for example, in case of an open-heart surgery, Korean surgeons communicate with each other in the surgery room using almost entirely English and Latin phrases–the same phrases that are found in American medical school textbooks. The same trend holds with airline pilots, only more so. Recall that airline pilots must communicate with the local airport in English. This means that it is a part of Korean airline pilots’ job description to be proficient in English. As a result, Korea’s pilots conduct most of their business in English, even with each other.

Take a look at p. 204 of the report, which shows the point at which the pilots initiate their landing check sequence, thinking that they must be near the airport. For the next five pages–which ends with the moment of the crash–the pilots are communicating almost entirely in English. At p. 206, for example:

Captain:  Landing check.
First Engineer:  Tilt check normal.
Captain:  Yes.
Captain:  No flags gear traps.
Captain:  Glide slope 안돼나? [sic] [Isn’t glide slope working?]
Captain:  Wiper on.
First Engineer:  Yes, wiper on.

This is the entire page of the transcript. It has one Korean phrase. There is no room for all the peculiarities of Korean language that Gladwell dutifully recounts. There are no honorifics, no indirect, suggestive speech. Just a series of regular English phrases that any airline pilot from any country may utter as he prepares to land.

Gladwell explains that the new COO of Korean Air, David Greenberg (a former Delta Air Lines executive,) solved all the difficulties caused by the ambiguous Korean language by requiring the pilots to speak only in English. Gladwell writes: “In English, [the pilots] would be free of the sharply defined gradients of Korean hierarchy . . . Instead, the pilots could participate in a culture and language with a very different legacy.”

But Gladwell never reveals that Korean Air pilots were already speaking mostly in English, although that fact was absolutely plain from the transcript.

If all of the foregoing is careful (if transparent) deck-stacking, Gladwell’s analysis of the pilots’ conversation in Korean is an outright journalistic malpractice. Recall that Gladwell’s central thesis is that Korean culture, expressed through Korean language, is not direct enough to efficiently communicate in the face of an impending disaster. To that end, Gladwell writes:

There is the sound of a man shifting in his seat. A minute passes.

0121:13 CAPTAIN: Eh… really… sleepy. [unintelligible words].


Then comes one of the most critical moments in the flight. The first officer decides to speak up:

FIRST OFFICER: Don’t you think it rains more? In this area, here?

The first officer must have thought long and hard before making that comment . . . [W]hen the first officer says: “Don’t you think it rains more? In this area, here?” we know what he means by that: Captain. You have committed us to visual approach, with no backup plan, and the weather outside is terrible. You think we will break out of the clouds in time to see the runway. But what if we don’t? It’s pitch-black outside and pouring rain and the glide scope is down. 

There is no nice way of saying this: this portion of Gladwell’s writing is ridiculous in several ways.


First, the way in which Gladwell quoted the transcript is severely misleading. This is the full transcript, which goes from pp. 185 to 187 of the NTSB report:

CAPTAIN: 어… 정말로… 졸려서… (불분명) [eh… really… sleepy… (unintelligible words)]
FIRST OFFICER: 그럼요 [Of course]
FIRST OFFICER: 괌이 안 좋네요 기장님 [Captain, Guam condition is no good]
FIRST OFFICER: Two nine eighty-six
CAPTAIN: 야! 비가 많이 온다 [Uh, it rains a lot]
CAPTAIN: (unintelligible words)
CAPTAIN: 가다가 이쯤에서 한 20 마일 요청해 [Request twenty miles deviation later on]
CAPTAIN: … 내려가면서 좌측으로 [… to the left as we are descending]
(UNCLEAR SPEAKER): (chuckling, unintelligible words)
FIRST OFFICER: 더 오는 것같죠? 이 안에. [Don’t you think it rains more? In this area, here?]

(emphases mine)

Note the difference between the full transcript, and the way Gladwell presented the transcript. Gladwell only quoted the first two lines and the last line of this sequence, omitting many critical lines in the process. In doing so, Gladwell wants to create an impression that the first officer underwent some period of silent contemplation, and decided to warn the captain of the poor weather conditions in an indirect, suggestive manner.

The full transcript reveals that this is clearly not the case. The first officer spoke up directly, clearly, and unmistakably:  “Captain, Guam condition is no good.” It is difficult to imagine how a person could be more direct about the poor weather condition. Further, there was no silent contemplation by the first officer. Nearly three minutes elapse during this sequence, during the captain and the first officer chatted constantly. And it is the captain who first brings up the fact that it is raining a great deal: “Uh, it rains a lot.” In this context, it is clear that the first officer is engaged in some friendly banter about the rain, not some indirect, ominous warning about the flight conditions.

This makes Gladwell’s lengthy exposition of what the first officer really intended to say suspect, to say the least. But Gladwell gives a similar treatment to a statement by the flight engineer:

“Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot,” he says.

The weather radar has helped us a lot? A second hint from the flight deck. What the engineer means is just what the first officer meant. This isn’t a night where you can rely on just your eyes to land the plane. Look at what the weather radar is telling us: there’s trouble ahead.

Gladwell goes onto explain: “Korea, like many Asian countries, is receiver oriented. It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said.” In other words, according to Gladwell, the listener must share the cultural context of the speaker to properly understand the true intended meaning of a statement.

Well, I happened to share the cultural context of the pilots of KAL Flight 801. I was born and raised in Korea until I immigrated to the United States at age 16. Since then, I have visited Korea numerous times, worked professionally in Korea, and currently interact with Korean professionals on a consistent basis. Most importantly, I speak, read and write Korean at a very high level. If you would like to see for yourself, you are welcome to read my analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the two gay marriage cases, published recently by a Korean media.

So by the power vested in me by Malcolm Gladwell, I declare: this so-called “interpretation” of the pilots’ “true intentions” is pure garbage. It is so ludicrously wrong that I cannot think of enough superlatives to describe how wrong this is. Gladwell’s exposition on Korean language is completely, definitely, utterly, entirely, 120% laughable to anyone who has spoken Korean in a professional setting. Koreans simply do not talk that way, period. True, Korean language is suggestive and indirect compared to English. But Malcolm Gladwell takes that factoid and stretches it beyond any recognition. It is the verbal equivalent of a Korean woman who, upon hearing that American culture is more tolerant of clothing that reveals more skin, decides to walk down Times Square completely naked.

It is at this point that we see a glaring flaw in Malcolm Gladwell’s entire analysis. Gladwell takes pain to build a case that Korean is a contextual language, in which the listener must be engaged for the context to understand the true meaning of a given sentence. Clearly, this type of communication requires a listener who is trained to listen for the context–in other words, a listener must be brought up within Korean culture, which would have made her practice listening with context, in order to correctly interpret the subtext underneath Korean expressions.

But if that’s the case, why should we lend any credence to Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of the subtext of what Korean pilots of Flight 801 were saying? As far as I can tell, Gladwell does not speak Korean. He was not raised in Korea. He never spent any significant amount of time in Korea. He was not raised as a Korean. There is no other indication that Gladwell is somehow proficient in navigating the subtexts within Korean language. So, according to Gladwell’s own logic, why should we believe anything Gladwell says about what Korean people say?

Here, we find a strange deficiency: the chapter does not feature any active Korean voice that is engaged with the subject. If Gladwell wished to follow his own logic about how Korean language operates, there was one simple way of conclusively proving his thesis: interview Korean pilots, and find those who agreed with his thesis. If Gladwell really believes that context is critically important in Korean, he would speak with the people who operate within that context, rather than substituting in his own interpretation. Yet in the chapter, Gladwell interviews a Sri Lankan pilot and an American blackbox expert, but not a Korean pilot. Gladwell does quote from a paper by a Korean linguist, but of course, the linguist was only observing the general features of Korean language–he was not opining on whether Koreans would keep up the propriety when they are about to die and kill hundreds of others, because they are about to crash the plane they are piloting.

This is inexcusable. At the time of Outliers‘ writing, Gladwell was already a world-renowned writer of The Tipping Point and Blink. One cannot seriously claim that Gladwell would have had difficulty finding a Korean pilot to vet his theory. Indeed, this entire chapter about the Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes is beneath the dignity of a respected public intellectual and one of the best-selling nonfiction writers of the last decade. Even under the most kindly light, Gladwell is guilty of reckless and gross negligence. Under a harsher light, Gladwell’s work on the connection between culture and plane crashes is a shoddy fraud.

“What of it?”, you might ask. “So what if Gladwell’s methodology was faulty? Isn’t Gladwell’s initial thesis worth exploring? Isn’t it still valid to ask whether culture plays a role in plane crashes? Isn’t it still valid to ask whether Korean culture played a role in the Asiana crash?”

Sure, I suppose culture plays a role in every part of our lives, so it may be valid to ask whether Korean culture played some role in the Asiana crash. It may also be valid to watch two Canadian golfers hit a bad shot in two different occasions in a golf tournament, and wonder aloud whether Canadian culture played a role in those occasions. However, we do have to think about the quality of that question. If entertaining that question seriously wastes time and distracts from asking the more realistic and pertinent questions, the question is not worth thinking about.

Take a step back and think about where we are in the crash investigation. The crash happened less than a week ago. Experts agree that it may take up to a year to conclude exactly what happened. As of today, no one–not journalists, not the NTSB, not even the Asiana pilots themselves–really knows exactly what happened. All we have is tiny snippets of facts that may or may not be relevant, and may or may not be true.

Think also about why we are wondering about a culturalist explanation for the Asiana crash. Again, as of now, we know practically nothing about the Asiana crash. There is nothing to indicate that the latest crash is in any way similar to the 1997 crash of KAL Flight 801. The crashes happened in two different airports, with two different airlines, which hired two different sets of pilots, who operated two different types of aircraft. They are also 16 years apart. They are about as similar as two poor golf shots hit by two different golfers in two different holes of two different golf tournaments held in two different golf courses.

Yet we connect this crash back to the 1997 crash of KAL Flight 801 because … they are both Korean.

Here, the danger of culturalism is made plain. Culturalism may not be the same thing as racism, but they share the same parent: the instinct to connect race or ethnicity to some kind of indelible essence. Because culturalism and racism are two streams from the same source, the harms caused by culturalism are remarkably similar to those caused by racism.

Like racism, culturalism distracts away from asking more meaningful questions, and obscures pertinent facts. A common meme in the current analysis of Asiana crash is that insufficient communication among the pilots can contribute to an accident, and Korean culture may hamper communication among the pilots. But is this correct? Read virtually any disaster report–be it 9/11 commission report or the BP oil disaster report–and you would find that lack of sufficient communication, particularly between the lower-ranked and higher-ranked staff, is a universal cause for a major disaster. Then does it make sense to focus on the culture of one particular country or a region, to address the issue of communication? Will doing so actually fix anything?

Like racism, culturalism puts a large group of people beyond rational understanding. No sane person would be willing to die for the sake of keeping up with manners–yet that is precisely what Malcolm Gladwell would have you believe about the 75 million Koreans around the world. If you are a non-Korean, and you believe Gladwell’s claim, the inevitable conclusion is that it is not possible to have a rational interaction with a Korean person. They are just too… different. Korean culture renders a Korean person so different from any person who you have ever known, such that there is simply no common ground from which a human relationship may begin.

This is actually a feedback loop: culturalism causes alienation, which in turn causes more culturalism. Our willingness to buy into the culturalist explanation is directly related to to the way in which we perceive the subject of the explanation. It is not a coincidence that a culturalist explanation runs especially rampant with anything involving Asia. When a massive tsunami, followed by the Fukushima disaster, struck Japan last year, one could not take two (metaphorical) steps in the Internet without coming across a grand explanation about how Japanese culture contributed to the nuclear meltdown, or how Japanese culture enabled the Japanese to respond to the disaster with resolve. Yet no similar analysis ever emerged about American culture or British culture when the BP oil spill–one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters–occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The supposedly earnest questions about Korean culture and Asiana crash are cropping up now, but when the Air France plane crashed in 2009, killing 216 passengers, nobody even wondered about the connection between the French culture and Air France crash. Why? Because Americans and Europeans are always accorded with the privilege of being treated as individuals, while Asians remain a great undifferentiated mass, unknown and unknowable.

And 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.

If the culturalist explanation is to be believed, the numerous differences between Korean Air and Asiana do not matter either. Korean Air is about as similar as Asiana as Microsoft is to Google. The long fight that Asiana fought to wrest the airline market out of the hands of KAL–which, until 1988, had a government-backed monopoly on Korea’s air travel–is one of the most dramatic battles in Korea’s corporate history. As rivals, the two companies have different business strategies, different foci and different corporate culture. In fact, the executives of Asiana would be positively offended if they were considered to be similar to the executives of Korean Air. But again, under the culturalist explanation, none of this matters: they are both Korean companies that hire Korean pilots that cause plane crashes.

This post is not to say that a culture is immune from criticism. Rather, this is to critique the way in which we deploy the cultural criticism. If we recognize that culturalism is ridiculous in the context of two bad shots by two golfers who happen to be from the same country, why do we fail to recognize the same when it comes to two plane crashes involving two airlines that happen to operate out of the same country? If we think it is valid to wonder if Korean culture factors into this plane crash, why were we never beset with the same curiosity about the French culture in the last plane crash? If it is so obvious to us that we would not sacrifice our lives, and the lives of hundreds of others, for the sake of good manners, why do we so easily believe that other people will readily throw away their lives for the same reason? Why did we buy millions of copies of a book, and nodded our heads reading it, when the book is making an outrageous claim about Koreans without interviewing a single Korean person?

Culturalism causes real harm. It obfuscates the truth. It creates a diversion from fixing the actual problem. It “other-izes” a huge number of people and make human connection with them impossible. It wipes away individuality, and condemns people to an impossible choice: deny who you are, or suffer the disasters–plane crashes, nuclear meltdowns–for all eternity.

It is high time we cut this out, and this Asiana crash is as good a time as any.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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