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.
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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.