Monday, July 15, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell's Reponse to the Culturalism Post

Malcolm Gladwell kindly sent a response to my post regarding his theory, and culturalism. Here is the entire response, presented as it was sent to me.

I will write a brief follow-up post addressing Mr. Gladwell points below. I would like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Gladwell for taking the time to read my post.

*              *              *

I read your post about the plane crash chapter of my book Outliers with some interest. First of all, let me say that I found your discussion of culturalism to be very good. In Outliers, I tried to make it clear that the reason it is important to understand the cultural roots of human behavior and performance is that culturally based characteristics are malleable: they can be changed and improved and adapted by learning from other practices and traditions. Too often, though, this point is lost. Cultural explanations are sometimes wielded with the same blunt force as genetic explanations—and that is a huge mistake. A number of those who rushed to judgment on the causes of the Asiana crash made this mistake. You are right to correct it. (And thank you for the kind words about my golf writing!).

That said, I part with you on a number of your conclusions about my work.

First, the “ethnic theory of plane crashes” is not my theory. It is not something that I cooked up in my apartment. The aviation community became concerned with the consequences of pilot deference in the 1980’s, and very shortly thereafter the question was raised—by a number of psychologists and human factors experts—about whether culture contributed to this tendency. The literature on this question is voluminous. I would refer you, for example, to any number of papers by Robert Helmreich—who was one of the most prominent human factors researchers in the world. The most important of the groups who believed that culture contributed to Korean Air’s troubles, of course, was Korean Air itself. They were the ones who brought in the team from Delta to re-train their pilots. Is the point of the article that Korean Air was wrong about what was wrong with Korean Air?

Second, the article claims that I stacked the deck against Korean Air and tried to pretend that “Korean Air was more accident prone than other airlines.” But it was not me who concluded that Korean Air had a problem. It was the international aviation community. In the late 1990’s, both Delta Air Lines and Air France ended their flying partnership with the carrier. The FAA downgraded Korean Air’s safety rating, and the Canadian government informed the airline that it was considering revoking the carrier’s permission to fly through Canadian airspace. The list of Korean Air crashes that the articles claims I “padded” was taken from an analysis of Korean Air’s safety record by the National Transportation Safety Board. Most important, Korean Air thought it had a problem. Once again, the article is in the strange position of arguing that Korean Air was wrong about what was wrong about Korean Air. (By the way, I’m a little puzzled as to why an incident where a Korean Air flight wandered into Russian airspace—at the height of the Cold War—doesn’t belong in a discussion of pilot competence.)

Third, the article says that the fact that the flight engineer was older than the captain means that the claims I made about cockpit hierarchy are wrong. To quote: “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.” It is important, however, to understand that both aviation culture and military culture (since many of the Korean Air pilots were ex-Air Force) would counteract this. I see, in the comments, that you have already conceded this point. So let’s move on.

Fourth, the article makes much of the fact that the pilots in the KAL cockpit were, largely, speaking English. If they were speaking English, the point seems to be, then the power distance embedded in the Korean language wouldn’t apply. But this is nonsense. Language does not drive culture. It reflects it. A Korean or a Colombian or a Saudi Arabian who speaks English does not, at that moment, become a different person: they still carry with them the assumptions of their own culture. I dwelt on the linguistic characteristics of the Korean language simply to point out how deeply embedded cultural ideas about power distance are.

The article claims: “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.” But that is not what I said. I said that Greenberg began his pilot retraining by making English-language skills a priority. At this point in the chapter I had made it abundantly clear that proper pilot communication involves a whole series of inter-personal, analytical and organizational skills. Greenberg’s point was simply that the range of low-hierarchy skills and practices that he was trying to teach would be easier to grasp in an entirely new language.

Now to the most puzzling part of the article: the re-interpretation of the Guam flight transcript. The central issue, as the chapter makes plain, was that the Captain committed to a visual approach to the Guam airport. That was the easiest and least taxing of options available to him, and he chose it (we think) because he was tired. But it was inappropriate for the circumstances because the weather was bad. The big question is why the other people in the cockpit didn’t bring this error to the attention of the captain. I will point out, once again, that this particular question was at the heart of the report filed by the investigation team at the NTSB. It is the heart of Robert Helmreich’s analysis of the crash. In fact, every single pilot I spoke to about that crash (and I spoke to many) brought up this same point. Why didn’t the others speak up?

So why does your critique argue? That the other pilots did speak up! To quote:

“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.”

Now let us put aside, for a moment, the fact that this interpretation differs from that of every single other considered opinion of the crash, including the trained experts who investigated its cause. Let’s just think about that interaction. The captain knows the weather is bad. He’s said so himself. He thinks it won’t matter. He’s wrong. He needs to switch to an entirely different landing procedure, and he needs to do it quickly. There are four separate steps in that logical sequence: the conditions outside, his error, the need for an alternate strategy, and the need to adopt that strategy quickly. The first officer mentioned only the first. That is not speaking up directly, clearly or unmistakably. It is the opposite.


  1. My first question is his reply already ends?

    Ok here're a few things I'd like to point out.
    1. Does cancellation of partnership with Delta and France mean it's because of KAL poor record?

    Considering the time period, it is not when Korea is industrially popular and tourist destination. Poor safety record does alone contribute to termination of partnership or just because of economic reason? Considering Japan economic power is high at the time and flight transit could easily pass Japan. Making another transit nearby without any economic incentive is not a priority for any major airlines if they think they're not gonna make a huge profit of co-sharing.

    Would Delta Airlines co-share with flights from Mongolia?

    2. Culture: Korean Culture Vs presumably US English Speaking Culture

    If a flight pilot has a 15 or 20 years of seniority, within a milliseconds when flight or fright decision is crucial, verbal communication in lowest possible form is mandated. If the tired senior took the port where weather condition is bad, how many times should a junior pilot keep telling the senior to change his course even after senior subtly or indirectly keep insisting "It's gonna be ok."?

    If junior pilot knows exactly where to take next action after receiving a response from senior within a fraction of second: Either he follows his guts/knowledge/information available at the time OR he subdue his dubious calculation and follow his master plan of course. Where on earth is it related to Korean culture?

    2.1 Assuming plane crash didn't happen, and junior pilot officer actually followed his senior pilot, did it mean Korean Culture respond well in crisis time?
    2.2 Assuming plane did crush (Yes, it did in reality as well), because those junior pilots did not speak up in the first place knowing that the old pilot was tired. It is because of Korean Culture?

    Interplaying these two potential circumstances together, it's seems that if the plane crushes, it's more likely due to Korean Culture.

    Ok let's step back and look at another scenario.

    3. KTVU announced 4 dubious names of Asian flight 214 pilots. It was presumably confirmed by Aviation authority after summer intern submitted. Even after Aviation authority confirmed it, if the announcer or the pre-check proof reader could easily read the 4 names aloud. Didn't they speak up in the first place knowing there is "Sum Tim Wong" with those 4 names? Why didn't they?

    3.1 Assuming this is a total neglect attitude of KTVU on reaffirming those names, it is a American Culture? that humiliating and projecting mockery in time of tragedy?
    3.2 Assuming summer intern speak up but KTVU went ahead and announced on air and later apologized. Is it also American Culture?

    If Mr. Gladwell is assigned to write on article Asiana Flight crush or he's paid to do so, he could have easily write some useful articles to delve into more safety features, surviving passengers, flight attendants. What did he do?


  2. 3.1 - absolutely a reflection of US culture in which acts of crazy individualism (like this) happen without any though of repercussions to the group (in this case KTVU).
    3.2 - I don't quite understand the argument?

    LOL at the argument he should have written about safety features --- that's not gonna sell any magazines.

  3. 3.2 KTVU apologising--american culture? No no, friend. That, along with shitty golfers, aparently (ㅋㅋㅋ) is Canadian culture. .

  4. Bint Zinc, your comment is wrong and confusing on so many levels, but here is a quick response:
    1. Yes. In fact, they canceled the codeshare agreement because KAL had a bad safety record.
    2.1. Why assume it didn't happen? If did.
    2.2. That is the dispute but I would say yes. Americans are more vocal about disagreeing with superiors than Koreans. That is cultural.
    3. How is this relevant?
    3.1. Every culture has buffoons who make racist jokes and morons who fail to correct them. Do we really need to compare which culture is more racist?
    3.2. Ditto.
    When did Gladwell blame culture for the Asiana crash? I thought we were referring to what he wrote in Outliers many, many years ago regarding KAL.

    1. I'm sorry if I made you confusing with my comment. Once I saw the Gladwell's reply, I just hit it out like as it is.

      1. Yes, the fact of the matter is the premises on cancellation of codeshare between two international airlines could be so many factors, including low safety record which again is justifiable here. But solely bringing up "The Culture" as an answer to the plane crash is undigestible. And you answer this in your 2nd comment, I guess.

      2.1 That is why it is called "Assuming". The senior pilot (Lee Kang-Kook) has been flying other Boeing planes to San Francisco international airpot. This is his first time flying maiden Boeing 777. Why there's no issue when he's flying Boeing 747 previously? If there's no problem, no report. Yes, since there has been no crash when he flew Boeing 747, we're not sure how they had communicated in the cockpit. But apparently there's no crash. So assuming (Big Assuming) the scenario I lay out in the above post, did "Korean Culture" previously play a big role in the cockpit too?

      2.2 I'm not questioning who's more vocal and disagreeing with superiors. I'm just pointing out that the scenario 2.2 (the reality) deals with a lot of issues rather than who's vocal in the cockpit and disagree with superiors.

      3. Your question of "How is this relevant?" needs a further explanation on in-depth correlation between "Korean Culture" and more-vocal-and-prone-to-disagree-with-superiors American Culture. If more vocality and tendency to disagree with superiors, in times of discussion or executing certain projects, is what brings the most beneficial results to the situation in hand, why is American Culture, i.e., by your definition, generate such kinds of act which obviously produce racial tension (which is not beneficial) every now and then? Not that American Culture is a lousy one, but if you take benefits from the Cultural stick, you'd also receive the other ends of the stick too. (You may claim KTVU (and other racially insensitive issue in US) is nothing to do with American Culture, I hear. Yes...... I say this freaking airplane crash is nothing do with Korean Culture as well. See. That's how we can go for years to discuss this, and I obviously don't have time.

      3.1 If Americans did something wrong, the typical response is "Every culture has ".
      If other races (Asians, Koreans, ...) did something wrong, the long winded, superficially researched, citation by citation to prove that "Asians are ". The here is "cultural issue".

      3.2 Ditto go to 3 and 3.1.

      I'm not arguing this is absolutely not the culture which could have triggered such a tragedy in the cockpit. I'm merely stating that there are so many factors and Gladwell picked one and accentuated it. That's it.

      And depending on how one looks at the situation, this is the case for everybody to each his own. And I'm not a Korean, by the way.

    2. You're not a Korean...and my guess is you're neither a lawyer nor a logician. Sorry, there are too many logical flaws in your post that I don't have time to explain point-by-point. Sorry, I know that seems unfair, but just trust me on this one.

    3. "I don't have time to explain point-by-point"

      "There are too many logical flaws in your post"

      "Trust me on this one"

      Yea, that sells.

    4. ha ha No Name throwing fallacies around...the irony! and how do you know Bint Zinc is not Korean ?

  5. I was practicing aviation law around this time (1999) and read extensively on the issue of Korean Air's safety record. I can confirm Gladwell's point that it was common knowledge that KAL had a poor safety record.

    I think the only point Gladwell could have made IN ADDITION to culture is that Korea and Colombia were developing countries. And perhaps the rapid development of the airline industry in those countries meant that certain safety precautions were overlooked. Lack of regulatory oversight, lack of proper training, as well as the culture of cronyism (unchecked by consumer rights and litigation in those countries) may have exacerbated the problem.

    And while we're on this topic. I thought Gladwell's point regarding Asians and math was interesting. But how does his theory address the mathematical superiority of Koreans/Chinese/Japanese born in the US (and speak no Chinese/Korean/Japanese)? [I don't know if this is statistically true. It may be worth looking into.] Did we somehow bring our rice cultivating (hardworking) culture to the US? I would posit that perhaps the first-generation, non-English speaking East Asian immigrant parents emphasized mathematical studies for their kids because it is something they were familiar with -- numbers are universal -- as opposed to something like the humanities that must be studied in English. It may explain why they also emphasize music - another universal language where Asians don't have a linguistic disadvantage. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Agree on your post above as well as this one.

      As for your question regarding math, here's an excerpt from Outliers:

      It seems to suggest that Gladwell's explanation is the linguistic structure rather than hard work. You're right that a "12" is a "12" in any language. However, "twelve" is not as helpful as "ten, two".

    2. I read Outliers and agree with Gladwell on that point. I was just noting that it seems even East Asian Americans who don't speak any East Asian languages (those who were born in the US) excel in math. And I was speculating as to the reason - that their immigrant parents emphasize math and music because they can understand them, as opposed to subjects based in English.

  6. While it's very gracious of Mr. Gladwell to take time to respond to The Korean's very well-written post, to me the biggest problem has been the media - their rush to judgement, their unquestioning acceptance of a cultural bias based on a book that I suspect very few of them have read, their lazy eagerness to copy from each other sketchy impressions of what Mr. Gladwell said, often without attribution, and their willingness to place blame on "those people" as being so different that the differences result in incompetence at highly technical tasks.

    1. I agree. The media has a great responsibility NOT to make such conclusions, because the public is susceptible to simply accepting them because of laziness, lack of professional knowledge, or limited access to the situation (i.e. interviews). Fortunately, many (although not all) people who watch the news and read the papers know that Korean culture is not to be blamed exclusively (or at least significantly) for the accident.. What really concerns me is the residual effects the media/authors like Gladwell can leave on people's subconscious that will have incorrect images of Korean people and punish Korean airlines...more than what they deserve

      The media/authors can say whatever they want, and they mostly make sense. Gladwell is a smart guy. But what they say can be misunderstood

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  8. My simple question to Gladwell is this: If Korean culture explains the bad safety record of Korean air, what explains the excellent safety record of the japanese airlines. All Nippon (No fatal accidents in more than 40 years) and JAL (last fatal crash in 1985 and even that due to mechanical failure) ? Does that record prove that Japanese culture is not only completely different from Korean culture (in-as-much as respect for elders and superiors is concerned) but it would also imply that Japanese culture is somehow better for air-safety than that of all the other national airlines of the world who've had a far worse safety record than those two airlines.
    I'd be really interested in hearing how Gladwell's cockamamie, quasi-racist theories explain the above. Either directly from Gladwell or anybody else who might care to defend him in this matter

    1. Since you seem more intent on Crucifixion than the ideas themselves, it really is only sufficient to remind you these are not Gladwell's theories. All he has essentially done is summarize the work of others, work he deemed interesting or agreed with. Trying to portray him as some modern day Goebbels of racial propaganda is simply paranoid and hysterical.

      "I would refer you, for example, to any number of papers by Robert Helmreich—who was one of the most prominent human factors researchers in the world. The most important of the groups who believed that culture contributed to Korean Air’s troubles, of course, was Korean Air itself."

  9. It's just very disappointing that Malcolm won't stand by his work. The ethnic theory of plane crashes: linking a specific culture (with limited working knowledge) to a larger framework of pilot deference was very much Malcolm's work. But instead of addressing the fallacies of his argument, he palms off the entire thing to the "aviation community."

    The issue that framed Malcolm's ethnic theory were airplane CRASHES yet when pointed out the inconsistency of lumping together various disparate incidents (like missle launches and navigational and mechanical errors) he passes on that opportunity to again, pass the buck to the Canadian government and Korean Air.

    The most inane comment he posts though is asserting that Greenberg came in with job 1 of making "English-language skills a priority" while ghsot face conceeding that the communication in the cockpit was almost entirely in English.

    It's not like Gladwell is going to reply to AAK "oh hey yeah forget that cultural bullshit I wrote" but you'd hope he would have offered a more robust rebuttal.

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  11. Malcolm Gladwell is a science writer, or popular social theory writer if you like. He is weaving a narrative from experience, culture, and scientific writing. The resulting narratives are fascinating and informative, but of course you can pick at any thread and come up with nuance and problematic ideosyncracies. His response that he is not coming up with theories but rather summing up theories from the field and tying them into his larger narrative is self-serving but also entirely appropriate. I think it ignores context to argue his summaries without having read the research, or to pretend he is the singular theorist inventing cultural ties to human performance in org theory. Google Scholar tends to disagree.

    I guess my point is it is hard to have the argument without going back to the sources of his theory. If I wrote you a two-sentence summary of "To Kill a Mockingbird" it would be over-generalized and problematic, and I may say "ethnic theory of plane crashes" to capture attention instead of "human performance issues in the cockpit." If I am writing for popular consumption my language and how in-depth I go will differ from scientific articles. Before you can vilify Gladwell you would need to refute the extensive writing on the subject and the industry's own conclusions about the issue. Arguing nuance against a summary rather than addressing the original research is lazy.


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