- This is my initial post about culturalism, plane crashes, and Malcolm Gladwell's assessment of Korean culture and plane crashes.
- This is my follow-up post, reacting to the initial round of responses by various commenters, issuing a correction and discussing some leftover thoughts.
- This is the post in which Malcolm Gladwell responded to my initial post.
Please read these three posts before you read this one; otherwise, this post will not make sense.
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Mr. Gladwell was kind enough to send me a response, which I posted in this space as I received it. Below, I present my thoughts on Gladwell's response.
1. "The Most Puzzling Part of the Article"
Gladwell wrote about the most puzzling part of my post was to him:
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.”
If Gladwell's entire point in Outliers is that nobody spoke up, why did Gladwell discuss what the flight engineer said, and what the flight engineer really meant?"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.
Because the point in Outliers was not that nobody spoke up; the point was that although the co-pilots did speak up, but they spoke up in a manner that was too indirect to be effective, because they were constrained by Korean culture. It is within this context where I said "[t]he first officer spoke up directly, clearly, and unmistakably" about the weather conditions.
I can agree that the co-pilots did not speak up forcefully enough; after all, their plane did crash. My point was that the co-pilots did speak up, albeit ineffectively. Importantly, that was Gladwell's initial point in Outliers as well. Our disagreement is more granular: in Outliers, Gladwell said that the co-pilots spoke up, but too indirectly; my point is that the co-pilots spoke up, and directly. In his response to my post, Gladwell is saying he was trying to figure out why nobody spoke up. These two positions espoused by Gladwell, before and after my criticism, are not consistent.
2. Korean Air's Safety Record
Gladwell wrote in his response:
[I]t was not me who concluded that Korean Air had a problem. It was the international aviation community. . . . 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.)
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.
3. Too Many Remaining Questions
After I posted Gladwell's response yesterday, I received several queries over emails, comment section and Twitter asking the same question: is that all of Gladwell's response? Are you sure the response is not cut off somehow? No--I posted Mr. Gladwell's response exactly the way I received it, without any edit or change.
But I can see why people thought that way. There are just too many remaining questions that Gladwell simply did not address, even if simply I accepted all of Gladwell's counterpoints. To wit:
(a) Why did Gladwell fail to interview a Korean pilot?
Gladwell notes that I was incorrect about Korea's military hierarchy. For the record, I do not believe I was incorrect in my original post. Recall that virtually all Korean males serve in the military. What I wrote in my post is based on the military experience of numerous Korean men with whom I have conversed. Generally speaking, it is true that a bit more respect is accorded to a lower-ranking soldier who is older than the higher-ranking soldier, compared to a lower-ranking soldier who is younger than the higher-ranking soldier. It is also true, generally speaking, that military pedigree matters in the level of respect a soldier is accorded.
However, I will readily admit that none of the men I spoke with served in the Air Force, and none of them served as an officer on a career track. So when a commenter who said he served as a naval officer pointed out particular features of Korean military officers who serve as a pilot, I readily accepted his authority and posted a correction. I posted the correction because while my general knowledge may not have been incorrect, it was misleading. I wish I had the chance to speak with an actual Korean pilot who previously served as an Air Force officer, but as someone who blogs for hobby in his spare time, I just did not have the resource to find and interview such a person.
You know who did have the resource to do so? Malcolm Gladwell. He is a world-famous writer; he can speak with virtually anyone in the world. It is not as if Gladwell had to interview Vladimir Putin about Russia's nuclear launch code. He simply had to speak with a few Korean pilots to test his theory. But this apparently did not happen.
Gladwell says in his response that he spoke with many pilots about the KAL Flight 801. I do not doubt that he did. But that only makes Gladwell's failure to speak with a Korean pilot even more glaring. Why did Gladwell fail to interview even a single Korean pilot, when he was writing about Korean pilots? Why did Gladwell speak with so many pilots, except a Korean one?
(b) Why did Gladwell fail to note that three KAL flights crashed because of military/terrorist attack?
Gladwell questioned why I would not include the two KAL flights that were shot down in the category of pilot error. I would not, because I think there is a difference between a pilot error that puts an airplane in the wrong airspace and a pilot error that puts an airplane into the side of a mountain. But even if I concede the point, several questions remain. For example:
- Why did Gladwell describe the shoot-down of only one of the KAL flights in Outliers? Remember, there were two KAL flights that were shot down by Russian jets: Flight 902 and Flight 007. Gladwell notes that Flight 902 was shot down, but simply states that the Flight 007 just crashed. Why? If Gladwell thought the KAL flights that were shot down should be ascribed to pilot error, why would he skip over Flight 007, which would have bolstered his argument?
- It seems like everyone agrees that Flight 858's crash, which occurred because North Korean terrorists planted a bomb, should not be ascribed to a pilot error. That would be silly; it would be like ascribing the 9/11 terrorist attacks to pilot error. But why did Gladwell include this in KAL's safety record? And why did Gladwell did not discuss the cause of this crash at all?
(c) Why did Gladwell fail to note that the pilots were speaking in English?
Why did Gladwell fail to note that the pilots of the Flight 801 were speaking mostly in English? Gladwell explains in his response: "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."
First of all, the claim that "language does not drive culture" is up for debate, to say the least. But even if we completely accepted that premise for Gladwell's sake, isn't the fact that the pilots were speaking mostly in English still relevant? Doesn't that fact at least deserve a footnote and an explanation as to why Korean culture is still in operation, regardless of the language spoken? Isn't it misleading for Gladwell to focus so much about the features of Korean language, and fail to note that the pilots were speaking mostly in English?
(d) Why did Gladwell quote the transcript selectively?
Why did Gladwell quote the transcript that appear in pp. 185-187 of the NTSB report in a selective manner? The original transcript has 11 lines of conversation. The transcript that Gladwell presented has three. In the eight lines that Gladwell omitted, (1) the first officer raises the weather condition to the captain in a direct manner ("Captain, Guam condition is no good"), and; (2) the captain himself makes an observation about the poor weather ("Uh, it rains a lot"). Both of these lines are relevant to the assessment as to whether the pilots of Flight 801 properly assessed the danger resulting from the poor weather conditions. Yet these lines are missing in Gladwell's presentation of the transcript. Why?
(e) How was Gladwell able to interpret the co-pilots' inner monologue?
Gladwell presents a remarkably specific interpretation of what Flight 801's co-pilots intended to say, when they said seemingly meaningless phrases such as "Don't you think it rains more?" or "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot." According to Gladwell, when Flight 801's first officer said "Don't you think it rains more?", it really meant: "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." Similarly, when the flight engineer said "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot", he really 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"--according to Gladwell.
(Quick note from reader Michael A. who emailed me: apparently, the correct term for the malfunctioning equipment on Flight 801 is "glide slope," not "glide scope" as Gladwell wrote in Outliers.)
By Gladwell's own explanation, Korean language is highly context-specific, and "[i]t is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said." (Emphasis in original.) In this instance, Gladwell is the "listener" of what the co-pilots were saying. And there is still no indication that Gladwell can speak Korean or is somehow intimately familiar with Korean culture. Then how is Gladwell able to give such lengthy and specific interpretation about what these Korean co-pilots intended to say? How do we really know if these co-pilots were actually saying what Gladwell represented, or if they were simply engaged in an idle chatter? (And again, why didn't Gladwell just show the transcript to a Korean pilot and ask, which would have obviated this entire issue?)
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In my email exchange with Mr. Gladwell, he expressed displeasure at my charge that he committed journalistic malpractice. I am sure no journalist is happy to hear that charge leveled against him. But even after giving the maximum possible amount of reasonable doubt, there are just too many remaining questions about Malcolm Gladwell's methodology, as he analyzed the connection between Korean culture and the Flight 801 crash. Until those questions are resolved, I am standing by what I wrote.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.