Thursday, July 11, 2013

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?

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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 industry, 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 CNN, the 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 thought Gladwell'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.

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.

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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?

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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 Bahrain 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 Korean 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.

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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 outlet.

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 factlet 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.

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"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.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. This should be required reading for all journalists.

  2. I'd also say it should be required reading for all my commenters... if I had any hope that it would help.

  3. Thank you! This is what I've wanted to say all along but with more resolve, articulation, and research.

  4. Amazing. This work is brilliant.

  5. Send it to Gladwell and see how he responds?

  6. That was really boss AAK. Great article!

  7. Very informative. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

  8. Terrific piece of writing and analysis.

  9. Loved this article...amazingly insightful.

  10. Adding this post to the list of reasons why I can't stand Malcolm Gladwell.

  11. Brilliant and thank you. The most deadliest aircraft incident in history was Tenerife in 1977 caused by pilot error on KLM Flight 4805. It created the concept of crew resource management (CRM) and this take away going forward:

    "Less experienced flight crew members were encouraged to challenge their captains when they believed something was not correct, and captains were instructed to listen to their crew and evaluate all decisions in light of crew concerns. This concept would later be expanded into what is known today as Crew Resource Management. CRM training is now mandatory for all airline pilots.[5]"

    Much like your Air France Flight 447 (and others see below link), when the KAL caused incident occurred in Tenerife, there were no news pieces about the cultural upbringing of the Dutch flight crew.

    CNN, the Washington Post and NBC News with a big assist from Malcolm Gladwell engaged in nonsense 'reporting'.

    Is Gladwell a hack? Certainly. Is he a racist? Well - I know my opinion at the minute but I'll read Gladwell's reply (if he ever does so). Again a great piece, which I hope is spread far and wide.

  12. While I don't know enough to comment on the validity of the other points raised, I don't agree with dismissing the KAL902 and KAL007 incidents because they were the result of "military attacks". Both flights ventured into Soviet airspace due to navigational/operational errors on the part of the flight crew. While the Soviets clearly overreacted, it can't be denied that had the flight crew not gone off course, those disasters could have been averted.

    That being said, I actually find the media coverage of OZ214 horrendous, filled with premature speculation, sensationalistic interviews, and disingenuous if not misinformed conclusions. I think suggesting that the culture or nationality of the pilots may have contributed to the cause of the crash is irresponsible at this stage, especially when I don't recall anyone drawing conclusions about the abilities of French pilots after AF358 and AF447, two high profile crashes involving modern aircraft resulting from pilot error. So I'm actually largely in agreement with the author of the blog, but starting his/her argument with dismissals of those unfortunate incidents weakens his/her legitimacy.

    1. While the Soviets clearly overreacted, it can't be denied that had the flight crew not gone off course, those disasters could have been averted.

      Is it usually the case that, if you fly your plane off course, a military jet appears and shoots down your plane?

    2. I don't see the relevance. The Soviet overreaction does not excuse or negate the fact that the flight crews of KAL902 and KAL007 made mistakes that contributed to the fate of those flights. As such, I see no issue with citing those flights as examples of pilot error.

    3. If you go and look at the statistics you'll find that in the 70s and 80s airlines from the USA topped the percentages for navigational errors.

      And that's the relevance, only a few of those (although there were a few) ended in a mountainside. And none of the incursions into Russian airspace (and again, there were a few) ended in missiles being fired.

    4. "Is it usually the case that, if you fly your plane off course, a military jet appears and shoots down your plane?"

      The first time it happens, I'd blame the military jet. The second and third times? Shouldn't they know better to be aware and steer clear? However, it's still a large, biased jump in imagination to blame Korean culture as a cause for navigation errors.

      I think this is a very minor point and I hope that by commenting on this I don't exaggerate it's importance on an overall well-written and excellent post. I commend you sir, thank you.

    5. The KAL902 mistakes are so massive, it's not even acceptable to blame the Russians. As far as they were concerned, it was a big plane coming over Greenland, straight towards Moscow and obviously they had to stop it. The embarrassment to fail to intercept this plane way after it had passed the borders directly contributed to the KAL007 disaster - again a disaster mainly caused by KAL pilots' incompetence. Flying in the wrong direction for hours and hours is beyond the pale for KAL902 and totally irresponsible for KAL007 - which happened after the KAL902 shooting and Korean pilots should have woken up to the music.

      I still don't get KAL902 shooting, how can a pilot not realise they have turned almost 180 degress around and flying back to Europe?

    6. Of course there was pilot error on these flights, but is it reasonable to blame culture as opposed to problems specific to the particular pilots of those planes? There could be any number of reasons why those planes went off-course - fatigue, poor training, insufficient experience, sloppiness, or just plain poor concentration!

      That I think is the point - it isn't established that the peculiarities of Korean culture had anything to do with these flights being off course, and I don't think Gladwell even tried to make that case. He tried to attribute their being shot down to some quality in Korean culture - like Korean culture attracts anti-aircraft fire!

    7. According to Ted Turner's cold war documentary series (available on Youtube) - The soviet pilot saw the windows lined tube of a commercial airline and fired warning tracers - however he was ignored by the KAL pilots. I am not sure if the radio communication were down. I guess it would have been easier to say, "charlie, you are in Russia, turn back to your course".

      The truth can be anything. We were not there. Is the transcript of that flight available online?

  13. Thanks TK. This was a masterpiece. I'm once again inspired by your multi-pronged reasoning against the whole 'It's cultural' theory. In particular, I strongly agree with your point about how the practice of viewing Americans and Europeans as individuals while treating Asians as an undifferentiated mass is narrow-minded and harmful. Much of it is done passively - I too have accidentally accepted the belief - but Malcolm Gladwell is someone who is earnestly abetting this imperialism-age line of thinking and I'd like to see more essays that challenge him in published media.

  14. Nicely done. And good for you for not sliding into glib sarcasm to rebut this idea (such as stating that according to alternate stereotyping the pilots' "tiger moms" had made them all perfectionists); some things really require more extended dissection as you've done here. I thought the point about inflating Korean plane crashes due to Cold-War terrorism and shoot-downs was particularly apropos/illuminating. Context, context, context. Anyways, thank you.

    1. Please see my post above. The Soviet overreaction does not excuse or negate the fact that the flight crews of KAL902 and KAL007 made mistakes that contributed to the fate of those flights. As such, I see no issue with citing those flights as examples of pilot error.

    2. Sure, he can cite them as examples of pilot error- but as any efficient essay-writer knows, they should only cite evidence which strengthens their argument and those crashes don't add to Malcom's argument. His argument was that 'The Korean culture makes it easier for miscommunication to happen in the cockpit, thus contributing to more accidents', but there is no evidence to suggest (and if there is, Malcom hasn't provided it)the KAL902 flight and the KAL007 flight was caused by such 'miscommunications'. Pilot error? Yes, perhaps- fatigue, inadequate training, maybe even bad visibility or weather conditions may have caused the aforementioned crashes, but I assure you that 'Holy shit captain we're being shot at' is exactly the same in every culture- be it in honorific form or not.

    3. KAL 007: International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) simulation and analysis of the flight data recorder determined that this deviation was probably caused by the aircraft's auto pilot system operating in HEADING mode, after the point that it should have been switched to the INS mode.[8][21] According to the ICAO, the autopilot was not operating in the INS mode for one of two reasons. Either the crew did not switch the autopilot to the INS mode (shortly after Cairn Mountain) or they did select the INS mode, but the computer did not transition from INERTIAL NAVIGATION ARMED to INS mode because the aircraft had already deviated off track by more than the 7.5 nautical miles (13.9 km) tolerance permitted by the inertial navigation computer. In both scenarios, the autopilot remained in the HEADING mode, and the problem was not detected by the crew.[

  15. I have not read the entire thing, but IJWTS that Canadians have a "bad golfing culture" because our golf courses are covered with snow for half the year :)

  16. I have been reading your blog for more than three years, and I have to say after reading this piece I find you beyond awesome.
    Your articles really delve into a culture I learn about through this informative blog. Thank you.

  17. Gladwell is prone to this sort of sloppy research and conclusions. I thought Blink in particular was full of bizarre conclusions that seemed directly counter to the evidence he presented.

    However I'm not sure your thorough documentation of the inadequacies of that chapter of his book completely negates the strong possibility that the hierarchical nature of Korean culture, and the reluctance to call public attention to another person's errors, may tend towards creating an inhibited cockpit, and may have contributed to the crash in the case of KAL801. The NTSB report on that crash says:

    "Although the first officer properly called for a missed approach 6 seconds before impact, he failed to challenge the errors made by the captain (as required by Korean Air procedures) earlier in the approach, when the captain would have had more time to respond. Significantly, the first officer did not challenge the captain’s premature descents below 2,000 and 1,440 feet.

    "The Safety Board was unable to identify whether the absence of challenges earlier in the approach stemmed from the first officer’s and the flight engineer’s inadequate preparation during the approach briefing to actively monitor the captain’s performance on the localizer approach, their failure to identify the errors made by the captain (including the possibility that they shared the same misconceptions as the captain about the glideslope status/FD mode or the airplane’s proximity to the airport), and/or their unwillingness to confront the captain about errors that they did perceive."

    I'm sorry, but I think a weak version of the cultural theory of Korean plane crashes is still on the table.

    You might also be interested in this (possibly unreliable) report that the trainee pilot of the San Francisco crash was senior to his trainer at Korea Aerospace Academy.

    Time will tell. The CVRs will be very interesting.

    1. I'm sorry, but I think a weak version of the cultural theory of Korean plane crashes is still on the table.

      Don't be sorry. I can agree that the cultural theory is still "on the table," so to speak. I just wonder how valid it is, and I am merely pointing out the manner in which we pursue that theory.

    2. In a similar vein, one could also argue that, not Korean culture, but vessel command culture ("captains as gods of the vessel") might have contributed to any number of crashes internationally. I'm pretty sure such an argument would be about equivalent to an argument that Korean culture specifically creates an atmosphere where pilot error can go unchecked.

    3. Again, the article's argument stands. While the NTSB was "unable to identify" why the flight crew did not challenge the captain's mistakes (maybe the crew just didn't take notice of them), Malcolm Gladwell's book makes it *clear* that the incident was caused by the way Koreans communicate. Likewise I think AAK makes a very clear case here that Malcolm Gladwell was in error and has egg on his face.

      Is it possible that "a weak version of the cultural theory of Korean plane crashes" could still be true? I think that right now it is irresponsible to even ask the question. Culturalism is generally A Bad Thing, you should not use this line of reasoning without evidence in hand, and when you do have evidence, do not overgeneralize.

      Except of course when you complain about your own culture. I for one am not about to give up the right to complain about my fellow Americans ;)

    4. To be fair to Gladwell, I don't think he was making a culturally deterministic argument in that chapter. I would call it culturally probabilistic if that term exists (as others have put it, a weak theory of culture is still on the table). I read that particular chapter years ago, but from what I can remember the impression I got was that these sorts of things can make differences on the margins. The problem is of course, while some people may recognize this point, it would probably breeze by most.

    5. As cultural probability increases and so do the number of instances where that probability can play out, it likely that results will deviate from the global norm. And if Korean airlines do deviate from other similar countries, then every cause should be explored, including cultural. I don't think AAK is arguing against that. The point is we can't defer to a cultural explanation simply because we can't/don't want to go through the trouble to search out other causes. It is intellectually lazy, dishonest and potentially highly bigoted.

    6. Lei, I think you are correct about the notion that cultural (or other) tendencies would have a probabilistic effect on complex situations. I think the key is to have some comparative estimate of the order of magnitude of the probabilities. I suspect that the thesis of the essay could be stated as "the probability of cultural influences on the outcomes in question is so vanishingly small compared to the probability of other influences, that the choice to emphasize it indicates poor or biased reasoning." I think the golf analogy is very clever because of how it exposes the silliness of placing a high probability on a cultural explanation -- I'm sure that one could make a persuasive case that there are cultural probabilities that have a non-zero influence on golf swings, but it's harder to imagine that such influences would rise above the noise.

  18. I seem to recall that Gladwell didn't come up with this communication theory of aircraft accidents on his own, but rather from steps KAL took to improve communication and, specifically, to reduce potential problems related to hierarchical relationships among people flying their planes.
    We can dispose of The Korean's entire thesis by simply pointing out that Gladwell was not inventing a theory, but reporting one arrived at by the people most directly involved: the airline itself.

    1. If you think that is my entire thesis, I'm afraid you missed the point.

  19. Your analogy comparing the landing of a plane and playing golf is misleading. Golf is not a team sport. It is not possible to make mistakes through miscommunication in golf. Landing a plane on the other hand is a team effort and miscommunication can lead to errors. Your analogy would be more persuasive if you used a sport like basketball or soccer to make your point.

    1. I'm afraid you missed the point.

    2. I don't think he did, not for that particular point anyway. It's a bit disappointing that the dismissive "you've missed the point" retort seems to be occurring here with greater frequency (not to mention how douchey it is), and I do not think it would be unfair to say that you are in danger of underestimating and trivializing pilot training and safety processes by comparing it with precision golf. But we can simplify that away for your example. Even if it wasn't a life-critical occupation, flying a commercial airliner still involves a multi-person dynamic, where, in my opinion, cultural factors would come more into play vs a golfer's inner monologue. While I'm sure it's possible to have a culture of one, generally speaking, culture as we know it involves created values via a multi-member society.

      Regardless, I do agree it's dangerous to always jump towards a cultural bogeyman, but I do not think culture has zero effect either (which you admittedly are not saying). I will say that I do not believe racism and culturism (which I doubt you originally coined, I'm sorry, but to each his own) are equivalently terrible; otherwise, to me that implies cultural values are really never negative, which I find to be absurd. Culture is a collection of ideas, and ideas can run the gamut of poor to mediocre to good, and all ideas are subject to scrutiny. I will agree it's very easy to slip between culturism and racism, however.

      I also contend that America does self-analyze all the time. It may not explicitly say, "this is a problem with American culture" but generally speaking that is implicit, whether it be the war on terror or the war on drugs. For what it's worth, your first article about Japanese culture being a factor in the meltdown of Fukushima is, itself, based off a report written by a Japanese professor who points towards Japanese culture as being a factor.

    3. Even if it wasn't a life-critical occupation, flying a commercial airliner still involves a multi-person dynamic, where, in my opinion, cultural factors would come more into play vs a golfer's inner monologue.

      The point was not that flying a plane is exactly the same as hitting a golf shot. It was not even that flying a plane has the same level of cultural content as a golf shot. The point was that they involve two far-flung, rare events, connected only through the thin strand of "culture".

  20. This was a fantastic, fantastic article, thank you very much.

  21. On the topic of checking the facts (to avoid the Igon Value Problem):

    Your post mentions that "nearly half of the passengers" of the 1978 KAL's flight 902 were killed; according to Wikipedia, "two of the 109 total passengers and crew members aboard" were killed.

    1. Thank you sir. Correction made.

  22. Wow, this was a great read. There was a small article in thr IHT or Joongang Daily (I can't remember which) that slyly raised this disgusting question, albeit in the form of speculation. I personally think that although the crash was of course a disaster, its miraculous that so many people got out relatively unscathed.
    But what I really want to say is that as a Korean 고3 whos studying and practising English writing skills for college admissions, the way you write is genuinely jaw-dropping. Kind of wish I had chosen to go abroad for high school when I had the chance.
    Anyways, your website has been bookmarked for quite a while now, and I really appreciate the great articles!

    1. As a 해외동포 who is studying at University in Australia, let me say that if you can write English this well WITHOUT having taken a 해외연수 course then you are a certified genius. Not even half my friends here in Australia can write with the clarity and accuracy you write with in the above comment. Hell, half of them probably don't even know the meaning of the words 'albeit', 'speculation', and 'unscathed', let alone be able to spell them correctly and use them in the proper context. Don't worry a thing about your college applications; you'll blitz through them. Unrelated to the article, but I just thought I'd give you a bit of kudos :) Good luck!

  23. The truth is that journalists are not incentivized to speak truth... they'r incentivized to SELL stories. I'm just the messenger here, not say it's right or wrong. It's like getting angry at a lion for eating on weaker prey. Well, the lion needs to eat in order to survive.

  24. This is an excellent article, tremendous commentary / refutation / research. I have shared it widely and wish it could be added in its entirety as an addendum to any future printings of Outliers.

    Thank you for your bold words, and keep it up!

    - Sam Jackson

  25. Comparing to AF447 is a bit of a stretch, because that was something that hopefully no pilot should ever have to face (faulty sensors, stall and bad weather), even if they did respond incorrectly and thus exacerbate an already bad condition. In contrast, this latest Asiana Airlines crash was during something which every single pilot has specifically trained for: a non-autopilot landing, during the day, with clear weather and light/no wind.

    Also, your discounting of the KAL military attacks is naive. Flying into the wrong airspace, as a pilot of a commercial airliner, is as bad as flying into a mountain. Being spatially aware of where you are and where you are going is *the* most important part of being a pilot.

    Stereotyping based on culture is *not* the way forward, I agree, but your comparison to golf is a bad one because golf is not a team sport. Flying a plane would be more comparable to something like curling, with a small group of people working to stabilise a system, but for hours on end. In something like this, cultural deference *can* have an effect, because the task is too great for any one person to handle; this can cause lapses in judgement, and requires a team to be dynamic about switching between roles to avoid fatigue.

    I leave you to draw you own conclusions, but please be aware some of the points you make are just as biased as you claim Gladwell's to be.

    1. Flying into the wrong airspace, as a pilot of a commercial airliner, is as bad as flying into a mountain.

      Does flying into the wrong airspace lead to as certain a death as flying into a mountain? I take your point that navigation is an important skill, but to me there is an obvious difference between the wrong airspace and the mountain.

      In something like this, cultural deference *can* have an effect

      Sure. Note that I never said cultural factors never come into play.

    2. The outcome may differ, but the type of error is of the same class.

    3. jkflying

      "In something like this, cultural deference *can* have an effect, because the task is too great for any one person to handle;"

      But is it established that cultural particulars in Korean culture have a more detrimental effect in these situations than western cultural peculiarities would have? I think that TK is spot on to note that western culture is never implicated when western airlines crash due to piloting errors - hence, "culturalism". Western pilots are afforded the privilege of being judged by their individual actions, Korean pilots are the mindless products of their culture - that I think is an important point in TK's post.

    4. MIGs and mountains are both matters of odds; plenty of pilots go off-course without hitting mountains (most of them, probably), and plenty of flights end up in the wrong airspace without getting shot down, but that doesn't mean that the pilot who does fly into a mountain (or a missile) ought to be forgiven their error because of the rarity of the event. Which isn't to say that the cultural argument is any more valid as applied to those Russian-doomed flights, but neither is it fair to say that they don't count as Korean place crashes just because they were really weird Korean plane crashes.

  26. Sorry, but your arguments are not that persuasive. You regard two Korean aircraft that wandered into Soviet airspace during the Cold War as something other than pilot error with perhaps cultural factors. In actual fact, navigational error is an excellent excellent illustration of pilot error, one that is far cleaner of other causes than a crew's poor response to an equipment failure. The fact that the USSR shot the planes down is irrelevant. It was crew error, perhaps augmented by cultural factors, that put those planes in harms way. The Soviet response was as predictable as that of a mountain should a pilot be foolish enough to fly into one.

    Keep in mind that Korea's culture and deference to authority may shape one dysfunctional response. The French airliner that crashed into the mid-Atlantic in a storm illustrates another. You might call the latter excessive deference to the status quo when the awakened senior pilot didn't take the controls himself.

    My hunch is that this San Francisco crash will turn out to be a blend of blunders. The pilot who flew the plane short of the runway was a very experienced pilot, which led to other crew to defer to him, but highly inexperienced with that particular aircraft and airport. He'd landed 747s at other airports often enough, he's transferred the normally mechanical process of landing a large aircraft properly (certain altitudes and speeds at certain distances out) into a seat of the pants approach. But he lacked that same intuitive feel for landing a new aircraft at a new field.

    And I might add that impact of culture on accident rates is clear. All you need to is look at the auto accident rate by country, Brazil at 55.9 per billion passenger miles versus Sweden at 5.1 (Wikipedia). And yes, those accident rates are influenced by drinking and speeding while driving as much as by individual mistakes. But that only emphasizes the cultural. It's culture that causes people to regard driving fast while drunk as acceptable or not.

    1. I don't think you understood my argument.

    2. Look, Malcolm's chapter was all about plane *crashes*. The book did not analyze statistics about navigational errors--and neither have you. You might have the beginning of a point IF Koreans made much more navigational errors than people from other cultures AND if, somehow, these navigational errors were caused by communication issues related to the Korean language. But I see no statistics on this type of error in your post.

      Navigational errors may be somehow in "the same class" but by definition they are not crashes, therefore statistics about plane crashes don't help you make conclusions about navigational errors vis-a-vis Korean culture.

      The idea that there will be a "blend of blunders" is probably right, obviously. Plane crashes very rarely have a single cause; if a single small human mistake could cause a crash, planes would crash a lot more often.

      I accept your point about the potential impact of culture on car accident rates, but plane crash rates and car crash rates need not be related in any way. Two differences for starters: almost any shmuck is allowed to drive a car, and the flight crew communication issue doesn't apply to driving.

  27. This is a great essay, but I want to contest the claim that "no similar analysis ever emerged about American culture or British culture when the BP oil spill". There were plenty of criticisms of corporate greed and corner cutting, which many people believe is something that distinguishes Anglo-American culture from others. Understandably, it was not addressed as an issue of "american culture" because the commentators and audience were both inside of American culture. You only need to specify the identify of the culture when it is not your own. By default, we talk about our own culture, and we necessarily talk about foreign cultures in a more general manner -- both because we have to specify their traditions (rather than understanding them implicitly) and because we are observing those cultures from a distance.

    Also, when people discuss these foreign cultures, it in typically in comparison to American culture. Sometimes the foreign culture is considered inferior, and sometimes superior. I cannot count how many times I've seen the American educational system compared unfavorably to foreign educational systems -- whether they are Japanese, Swedish, Chinese, or others. These commentators frequently appeal to cultural differences as explanations for American failures. Come to think of it, comparisons with foreign cultures is one of the standard rhetorical strategies deployed by those who want to criticize some aspect of American culture.

    1. Understandably, it was not addressed as an issue of "american culture" because the commentators and audience were both inside of American culture.

      What about American critique of British culture? Or British critique of American culture? Is there any serious analysis that pins the BP oil spill explicitly on British or American culture, in a way that Gladwell does with plane crashes?

  28. Not to defend Gladwell, but there may, in fact, be a cultural problem with pilot training in Korea. See, for example:

    1. You have any link to the original post or just the anonymous copy and paste job on slashdot to go on?

    2. Well, the original post is either anonymous or pseudonymous. See:

      Of course, even if the author is who he says, it doesn't mean that he's not also a troll. It'd be interesting to have some pilots commenting on this.

  29. Nice article. It seems like Gladwell is padding the deck by including terrorist bombings and missile attacks. But he does have a persuasive style that's fun to read. In fact I was wondering if I was reading him when you started talking about Canadian golfers.

    The problem is the first thing I think about when I think about the professional golf is the proliferation of Koreans in the LPGA. If you're watching women golf on TV, the string of 100 good shots is likely a bunch of Koreans. There has to be something going on here.

    And while the pilots do communicate in English during the landing, the full transcript you show us is chalked full of Korean.

    Whether the disaster could have been avoided if the co-pilot acted 6 seconds before the crash is what gives Gladwell's story its bang. Even changing "could have" to "it was possible" doesn't really change the effect.

  30. Good article - not everything is culture. Indeed the latest speculation about the Asiana situation is a faulty auto-throttle issue.

    I think there is a non-Korean specific "cultural" problem still on the table - many countries have had air safety issues when an airline has too many ex-military pilots. It shows up most in smaller countries with geopolitical situations that lead to that kind of imbalance.

    1. Meta,

      Speculation is the right word. NTSB stated unequivocally in yesterday's press briefing that auto-throttle was working correctly. Training pilot in interview said he thought it was engaged and maintaining the speed programmed into it. Clear deduction is that it was not in fact engaged.

      Pilots on multiple professional forums have pointed out that auto-throttle functionality varies markedly from Boeing to Airbus, which could have confused the flying pilot. But monitoring airspeed is always on the pilot, and pilots can always throttle up for speed (autothrottle does not prevent or override pilot input). Nobody noted low airspeed in the cockpit until 7 seconds before impact. Pilot error and possibly insufficient training in hand-flying the aircraft (manual flying versus automated) very likely.

      Many many recent accidents have been traced to crew confusion about which degree of automation is operative under which inputs. The pilots of Air France 447 didn't realize their autopilot was no longer controlling altitude. Aeroflot 593 didn't realize their autopilot had been disconnected. (In that case, the pilot let his kids play-fly the plane while auto-pilot was engaged, not realizing that protracted pulling on the controls would disengage part of the autopilot.)

  31. TK, a very thoughtful and well written article. AAK is one of my favorite blogs and I'm always excited when you have a new post.

    While I find Gladwell highly entertaining, I too find many of his arguments an exercise in pure sophistry. But I'm not entirely certain that "culturalism," did not indeed play a hand in last weekend's crash. SFO is my home airport and I've flown in and out of that airport over 500 times. It's the one of the safest airports in the world, and hasn't had a fatal airline crash during my lifetime until last weekend. While the approach is over the bay it's not treacherous by any stretch of the imagination. The weather last weekend was near perfect, sunny with light winds and barely a cloud in the sky.

    A seasoned pilot should have had no problems with landing using visual cues only. There were four Asiana pilots on that plane, of which three were in the cockpit during the approach. Not one of the pilots raised the alarm that they were flying too slow and low until the plane was a mere 100 feet from the ground. In post crash interviews, many of business passengers on that flight, who fly into that airport often, recognized that the plane's approach was far too close to the water.

    The Asiana flight crew only recognized this and attempted to abort at 3 seconds and 1 1/2 seconds before the aircraft tail hit the breakwater. My fear, which I hope is unfounded, is that the two other pilots were hesitant to correct left seat.

    I work a lot with Korean and Japanese companies (and travel there quite a bit), and I have witnessed first hand how loathe Koreans/Japanese are to "correct," their co-workers, let alone their superiors, in public settings. It's not that they make more mistakes (compared to Westerners), on the contrary, the generally make fewer errors. But, if mistakes are made they go unrecognized/unacknowledged for longer periods of time. At least that has been my experience.

    1. I work a lot with Korean and Japanese companies (and travel there quite a bit), and I have witnessed first hand how loathe Koreans/Japanese are to "correct," their co-workers, let alone their superiors, in public settings.

      Do you really think the tendency will hold when the pilots are hurtling toward killing themselves and hundreds of others? Serious question.

    2. "Do you really think the tendency will hold when the pilots are hurtling toward killing themselves and hundreds of others? Serious question."

      Probably not, but this was not that type of crash. Had the pilot approached the runway just a hair faster and a bit higher they wouldn't have crashed the tail on the breakwater. There's the famous smoke filled room study where participants sat filling out questionnaires, smoke began to fill the room. When participants were alone, 75% reported the smoke to the experimenters. In contrast, just 38% of participants in a room with two other people reported the smoke. In the final group, the two confederates in the experiment noted the smoke and then ignored it, which resulted in only 10% of the participants reporting the smoke.

      In either scenario you would think the genetic imperative of self preservation would kick in, but oddly it may not always be the case.

    3. not in 99% of the cases, but it might in 1%. no different in any other setting in any other country. read the "checklist manifesto" by Atul Gawande to see a similar force in effect in the surgery room at U.S. hospitals. if one were to claim that the flight crew on KAL 801 crashed the plane due to certain aspects uniquely inherent to the Korean culture, that is obviously wrong. however, i think it would be entirely appropriate to describe the problem as "cultural" or "organizational". as another poster pointed out below, there is a hierarchical structure that is built-in to the Korean language, which introduces an extra barrier that may not be overcome in a stressful situation.

  32. Great piece of writing.

    As I recall, Gladwell's major structural reasoning for including the cultural theory of airplane crashes was to build to a cultural theory of Asian mathematical superiority. "Outliers" is about success, not disaster; he wanted to ease readers into the validity of culturalist thinking, before launching into more daring claims like "The Chinese are good at math because their ancestors worked on rice paddies" and "KIPP schools succeed because they bring bits of Asian culture to black kids."

    Your thoughts on culturalist thinking apply doubly there. It's not wrong to seek explanations for why Asian-American students succeed disproportionately at math. But it's dangerous to be sloppy about it. As you say, an off-base culturalist explanation risks robbing kids of agency in their own success.

    1. Thank you sir/ma'am. In the sea of miscomprehension, it is so nice to see a comment that gets at the heart of what I am trying to say.

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  34. I would really like to point out that this is not Gladwell's theory and should not be discounted merely because of his presentation, the exemplars he chose, or the context of the larger argument he intends to support.

    Cockpit communications, of which cultural nuance is one facet, is a field of study and an aspect of crash investigations that far predates Gladwell's book, and gave rise to the current, industry-wide practice of crew resource management (be clear about who's responsible for what, and communicate openly about all flight issues).

    Gladwell chose the Air Korea crash as an instance of cockpit communication failure, but this was not the first known instance by a long shot, nor the only culture for which it's been studied in the context of a crash. (Google Tenerife.)

    It's an unfortunate coincidence that Gladwell wrote about a Korean-crew accident as an exemplar, and then that was seized on by the media following this crash to make an incorrect induction, one which Gladwell himself *did not make*, which was one that correlates a particular nationality with safety problems due to cockpit communications.

    At the same time, bad journalism aside, the research and data that led to the development of crew resource management is absolutely valid, and is *always* investigated as possible contributing cause by the NTSB, regardless of crew nationality. In addition, while this is a cross-cultural phenomenon, it is not a culturally-agnostic phenomenon. It manifests differently depending on the nationality, age, relationships among, etc etc of the crew. Therefore, both the Asiana corporate culture with regard to cockpit communication protocols, and the broader Korean culture with regard to same will absolutely, and properly, be looked into, by real experts, who really care about improving safety.

    That all said, in this case it is not looking like shaping up to be a big factor. We already know that the most junior member of the crew felt free to call out "sink rate," which is an indicator of open communication among this crew.

  35. Hello Korean,

    I'm a Korean too - I actually commissioned as an OCS (like the pilot of Korean Air 801) officer, and served as a naval officer on a ship and later as a UDT/SEAL in the Korean navy. I agree with your basic thesis that Gladwell is inexcusably sloppy and that culturalism is over-emphasized in covering the recent crash.

    However, I do think that language was a contributing factor to the KA 801 crash - though such problems are not necessarily limited to Korean culture as the Challenger and Discovery tragedies, and the development of Crew Resource Management by NASA show.

    First of all, I disagree with your description of the hierarchy of Korean military officers. In every day interactions, "seniority of commissioning date" is the overwhelming factor in deciding how to interact other officers, with actual age coming in as a modifying factor. Commissioning source (Academy or non-academy) heavily affects an officer's career trajectory and chances for promotion, but does not factor into the language hierarchy. Rank also does not affect the language hierarchy, which causes much cognitive dissonance and discomfort should a higher ranking junior officer work in close quarters with a lower ranking senior officer.

    The senior pilot was commissioned in '75 and left the Air Force as a major in '87 while the first officer was Air Force Academy class of 26 which would mean he was commissioned in '78 and left the military as a Lt. Col. Hence, the pilot is unambiguously superior to the first officer. This is supported by the language in the transcript where the senior pilot uses the lowest form of speech (반말) to the first officer. From my personal experience, I have never seen any junior Academy officer fail to defer to a senior (in commissioning date) OCS or ROTC officer.

    Second, the flight engineer is clearly much older and senior to both the pilot and the first officer. But there is another factor in play here - engineering is a secondary rating to flying and in the Korean military at least, there is a strong sense that you don't interfere with another officer's turf. Each specialty is highly silo-ed. For example, on the first ship I was on, the Chief engineering officer (Cheng) was senior to the Executive Officer (XO). Hence, at no point did our XO fail to acknowledge the Cheng's seniority, but in return the Cheng was conscientious about not overstepping the bounds of his specialty and interfering with the management of the ship.

    So there were clear linguistic barriers to open communication within the cockpit of the KA 801. The first officer was junior to the pilot, and the flight engineer was used to keeping his hands off the realm of pilots.

    Second, my own experience running exercises as a SEAL has shown that conventional Korean language hinders cooperation in time sensitive situations. For Close Quarters Combat exercises, where team members must work with each other within a room to clear it of "bad guys" safely, and where the situation and command structures are fluid, my unit has mandated that everyone speaks to each other in the lowest form of speech (반말) regardless of rank or age. Not only does this reduce the time necessary to communicate (since sentence endings are shorter), but it makes the junior members of a team much more likely to speak up when they see a corner that hasn't been "held" yet or a potentially dangerous situation.

    Deference to authority is not a unique problem to Koreans (again, see NASA and Crew Resource Management), but I would argue that the Korean language structurally exacerbates the problem.


    1. Thank you sir, this is helpful. Like I said, it is always a good practice to refer to someone who is closer to the context. It would have been great if I could speak with you before I wrote the post. Unfortunately, I am just some nobody who blogs for hobby, not a best-selling writer--so I didn't have the wherewithal to reach out to someone like you. I am writing a follow-up post, and I will definitely raise this point.

  36. Malcolm is just a convincing liar.

  37. Wow... what a lot of words expended to defend some guys screwing up landing a perfectly good plane in perfect weather. Oh, some guys who also happened to be Korean.

    "Seen collectively... landing a plane is not unlike a golf tournament."

    Urhm... not really. You mean professional golf right? The sort some people watch on cable and then write lengthy nonsensical articles about attempting to illustrate their half-assed concocted cultural theorems? To cut through the bullshit... there are 597,109 licensed airline pilots in the US. There are 287 pro golfers on the PGA tour. There are approximately 30,000 commercial flights in US airspace. Every. Single. Day. Landing a plane is not _nearly_ as hard as you are attempting to imply. Certainly not with all the automation that has been built into the cockpit. Oh wait... automation... we'll get to that in a sec.

    Secondly, on your half-baked cultural argument framing...

    "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."

    You actually commit a number of logic fallacies with this haphazard statement. But you seem to be in a rush to get to the beef of your argument... disproving Gladwell. Except... in attempting to critique Gladwell you basically employ the same tactic. You selectively frame your argument, pick data to suit your argument, use loaded words to color the argument, then suggest your argument is the more-levelheaded of the two, and should therefore prevail. Sorry. Fail. If Gladwell's work is deeply flawed for employing selective, unscientific, skewed arguments, so is your critique.

    As to the rest of your argument... you seem to basically go off on a lengthy tangent deploring the amount of commentary that is dragging "culturalisms" into the OZ 214 crash argument. If you mean to deplore the state of modern journalism... take a number and get in line. I can think of a hundred other stories more pertinent than the
    OZ 214 crash where journalists have screwed the pooch writing sensationalist tripe. The Trayvon Martin shooting comes to mind.

    If Asiana's CRM is a contributing factor to the crash, that needs to be on the table. A lot of professional pilots are wondering just how 3 pilots can sit in a cockpit and shoot a really bad approach and well... basically just let it happen to the point of catastrophe. Were they all sleeping? Were they hypnotized? Were they all dyslexic? Waiting with bated breath.

    Oh, and while you're holding court amongst your fans on the vicissitudes of culturalism and racism... don't forget to add a biting comment to all the sexists out there... like the management of Asiana Airlines.

    1. Wow... what a lot of words expended on total irrelevance.

    2. @Turgid,
      "You actually commit a number of logic fallacies with this haphazard statement. But you seem to be in a rush to get to the beef of your argument... disproving Gladwell"

      I repeat You seem to be in a rush to get to the beef of your argument... disproving AAK.

  38. Very nice post! Malcolm Gladwell is not trustworthy. Just checkout the S.H.A.M.E. project:

  39. Like it or not, every airline has its own culture, even within a country. But the reason Gladwell is right is that people make mistakes, and if a culture allows a senior pilot to ignore correction by a junior pilot, safety suffers.

    We had similar problems in the U.S. and in the 1980s, all U.S. pilots went through training to break down that kind of cockpit culture.

    We will always have little boys who want to pretend, when they age but do not grow up, that they are kings or gods. When this is allowed in aviation, people did.

    As they did in the KLM-Pan Am runway collision in 1977. The KLM copilot told the captain they were not cleared for takeoff. The captain, in his arrogance, simply commanded, "Set takeoff thrust.

    His last words - on the cockpit voice recorder - were "Gott damn!"

    1. The argument was not that cultural patterns do not exist and are not part of the puzzle but that there is danger in attributing too much to culture. Your examples demonstrate that culture is malleable and goes through changes, therefore it is perilous to make assumptions about what a given 'culture' is, let alone assume that it determines the choices made by individuals. Cultures might be a set of resources that people draw on when interpreting their world and acting upon it but it is not a static operating system that prevents them from making other choices. The often heard explanation "that's just their culture" is not only lazy stereotyping but also closes off further inquiry about context and the multiple contributing factors to every event.

  40. Perhaps a topic you can address in your next post: are Koreans more resistant to "external" evaluation (regardless of whether such evaluation is good or bad, but especially if bad) of their culture? Any observation by a non-Korean person that is perceived as potentially negative will often be dismissed with the comment that "the observer has no right to say such things as a foreigner" even if it is a perfectly valid observation that simply repeats what Koreans say to each other all the time. A case in point is even this very post, where you compare your Korean credentials with Gladwell's. While it wasn't completely irrelevant in this context where you have competing views on how to interpret the cultural interplay at work in the moments before the crash, your superior credentials ultimately led you to the wrong conclusion (per Chris Kahn). Of course, that's okay--you're human after all. However, I wonder what actually caused this was that your Korean impulse to discredit a foreigner's (Gladwell's) analysis of the Korean culture overcame even your formidable reason and critical thinking.

    1. I mean this in the kindest of terms...but no name makes a valid point. The post felt very defensive. Cultural studies aren't racist in nature.

    2. They just don't think you know what you're talking about. I'm not being facetious. One of the major issues expats run into is that Koreans will not ENGAGE foreigners which comes off as arrogance. Like "your opinions are not even worth discussing." In fact the Koreans are trying to be polite in the face of extremely rude behavior but from an American perspective this is not kindness but extremely frustrating. Those Koreans who are "resistant" to your "external evaluation" know they are better educated & probably much smarter than you are and they don't want to listen to whatever you read on wikipedia or on a blog about their country regardless of the other courtesies they have shown you as a foreigner.

      Koreans are typically open to both foreign critique & subject to a torrent of internal (Korean) criticism. This is because of a Confucian emphasis on improvement & self criticism as well as the fact that technical expertise (such as in flying a plane) is entirely dependent on foreign expertise. In this very case AAK is the exception among Koreans, not the rule. There's been little pushback to Gladwell's assertions @KAL flight or US media's coverage of Asiana. Why? Nothing to do with Malcom being a foreigner or being black it's because he's a well respected writer to whom Koreans extend a level of credibility. Try being an actual expert on something & see how Koreans respond to you. I do training & Koreans are among the most hardworking & bright eyed staff I've worked with in the US or Asia. That's because I know what I'm talking about, not trying to aggrandize my own import by lecturing them on crap

      If you're respectable Koreans will ask YOU what you think of them and of Korea, the US etc. Just the fact you haven't reached that point in a Confucian culture means you lack the respect. Simple.

      The issue you have is not "Koreans." Go try telling blacks gun violence in Chicago is a result of violent culture or Jews that treatment of Palestinians is cultural egocentralism. People just don't like to be told random things about their culture, nor for tragedy& misfortune to be used for some small social currency by bottomfeeders on the internet. The issue isn't Koreans, it's you. The question is why you feel "qualified" to give your two cents about Korea when you'd keep your trap shut trying to lecture African Americans on Trayvon Martin or Israelis on the West Bank Wall. I mean yes your mom told you, you are a special snowflake & so did mine but it's a bit of hard baked paternalism in our American culture which purports to engage in "external evaluation" of those recalcitrant Asians for their own benefit

      Look at the substance of the "external evaluation" you profer here. AAK is an American, you realize that right? He's ethnically Korean but he's as American as you are, yet you can't even acknowledge that offering "external evaluation" of him. Just this fact is very problematic in considering you a valid "external evaluator" about anything, rather than say a racist or an idiot

      I'm American too so let me offer external evaluation of my own. Any cultural bias AAK may have is going to be a product of our shortcomings as a culture here in the US 1st&foremost. The argument he is making @culture is an AMERICAN argument similar to crticism of loaded media characterization of Islam. It is not a Korean one

      As to your pressing question, you realize AAK was saying that Gladwell doesn't know shit about Korea right?He's more qualified than Gladwell because Gladwell doesn't know anything about the subject. Presumably you're on a SITE precisely because the man purports to have some expertise in Korean culture. If you dispute those credentials why would you even be on this site? It's nonsense. I hope my disagreeing w/you won't make you form some generalized discomfort with my American culture. Cheers

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    1. Now, about the Asiana crash. I don't know how that happened and I don't know what went on in the cockpit. But there is one thing I do know for sure - if it would be a Russian plane, they would have blamed the pilot no matter what, especially a diseased pilot. That's Russian culture for you.

      One thing for sure - if Korean airline companies want to have an impeccable reputation, they should not put their money into designing Italian neck scarves, but rather in pilot training. Make their training programs the most rigorous in the world, make them pass the most impossible tests, pick the best of the best and keep training them every month. After all, flying a plane should be treated more seriously than performing a brain surgery - you are responsible for hundreds of lives, not just one. Assure adequate rest and train them some more. That's the only way to overcome culturalism in aviation.

      The best airline to my knowledge is Quantas. Not because they serve champagne and caviar or offer a foot massage. They are the safest. Is it because they are Australian? No, but nobody cares where they are from. I believe most people don't even know. An excellent performance record sets a high standard for everybody else, culture aside.

      I personally know two people who work on planes. One designs parts of the plane and another one creates new materials for the outer shell. They both refuse to fly. Why? They know what it is made of. And it is nothing to do with culture.

      To sum it up, even though we are inseparable from our culture and culturalism since it has a very strong biological bias, there are ways to look beyond culture. We are constrained by our physical ability and our genetic encoding. White man can't jump. But, as Martin Luther King rightfully pointed out, we should not be judged by the color of our skin or by our culture, but by our accomplishments and merits.

  42. Long story short, from 1978-1999 the vast majority of airline incidents were caused by pilot / crew error re: Korean Air. Recommendations were also given from the NTSB and UK to change such standards, because they were clearly lacking. While I can agree with your premise that culturalism was the not the primary culprit in these accidents, it's very easy to draw a pattern. To put it in perspective, US airline accidents were about 50/50 maintenance / structural flaws to pilot error.

    I feel like part of your counter-argument would hold up better if it wasn't defending incidents or included the multiple cargo accidents during this time (which were ALL pilot error). You can also reasonably argue about 2 of the military incidents as they began with major navigation errors.

    1. I'm a little confused by the first sentence of your comment. Are you trying to say: #1. that the majority of those crashes in that period were caused by Korean pilot error; #2. or that the majority of the crashes of Korean aircraft in that period were caused by pilot error? Which is it? Be careful how you phrase your comment my friend -- are you just a sloppy writer who does harm without thinking, or are you another Malcolm Gladwell?

  43. A former UAL captain provided some interesting perspective on the crash. The original post was deleted from but is copied here:

    1. The original author's claimed creds would be interesting to confirm. I also saw the same article/blog, at another site:

      calling it a "guest post". Oh, interwebs.

  44. I heard appalling things about pilot training and how the trainers would be forced to pass people who had clearly failed the training session. Even more so when they were ex-jet pilots. The logic being "they are jet pilots so they are good and because they are good it is impossible for them to fail the training they just failed".

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  46. Fellow Korean (who was born in the states, but due to some back and forth stuff moved to the states when 15 years old) here, and I agree with most of the stuff you present.

    "Culturalism" aside, it is entirely possible that the "environment" had something to do with the crash(es). While it is inherently stupid to jump to conclusions at this point, hierarchy has played a big role in creating inefficiencies in Korea, including the Korean national soccer team, which regressed greatly since Guus left.

    Of course things work both ways and the advantage to this is that if there's a smart guy on top, great results come by that much quicker. But with most training manuals and conventions designed by cultures that do not take such hierarchies into account, I am guessing that anything that is 'different' will likely cause in 'wrong' unless enough experience is accumulated and manuals modified accordingly.

  47. Thank you for this thoughtful, reasoned analysis of the "cockpit culture" theory in terms of the KAL and Asiana crashes. It's really maddening to see race, ethnicity and/or culture get called selectively into question, over and over again. I would love to know Gladwell's response to your post, if you plan on sending it to him.

  48. This may be the best thing you've ever written, TK.

    I guess I've been out of the U.S. too long, because I've stopped worshipping the First Amendment. Journalists do so much harm with sensationalism, piss-poor statistics, all-sides-are-equal lunacy, boldly false stories followed by tiny buried retractions, that I might not mind if they were licensed like doctors and lawyers and one could lose his or her ability to write current events analysis for a newspaper or magazine.

  49. It is convenient and possibly a coping strategy for a lot of people to assign this whole accident to "Korean culture" but the reality is that it was caused by an unfortunate confluence of a number of factors such as the lack of glidescope for that runway which made a fully manual landing the only way to go, unfamiliarity of aircraft to the first-time 777-flying-pilot, and unfamiliarity of how to coach to the first-time instructor pilot. I just don't there was anyone in the cockpit who knew what was wrong but was being deferential from all that I have read.

  50. Very interesting essay that raises many valid points, along with some great discussion. However,

    "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"

    This made me scratch my head. Having lived in Korea for the last 13 years, I've constantly been told that Korean blood, a shared indelible essence, is what separates Koreans from everyone else. Could you share your insight into how this plays into your views on culturalism, i.e. how else should a group be talked about when they wish to be self defined as being separate and unique from everyone else?

    1. I'm pretty sure I wrote about being aware of self-stereotypes.

  51. Gladwell's reasoning is sloppy, and there is no conclusive evidence yet that the hierarchical culture in the cockpit played any role in the Asiana crash. Maybe the 777's auto pilot was not working as it should be when it was approaching SFO.

    However, Koreans who are living THE hierarchy described in 'Outlier' every day could instantly sympathize with Gladwell in his reasoning when the book was published in the other side of the Pacific. And the use of English language only in avionic terms not does not satisfy the full definition of natural English speech. Many Korean doctors do use English medical terms every day but South Korean operation room is the epitome of masculine oppression that is the hallmark of Asian hierarchy.

    Many senior Korean skippers were trained in the military renowned for rigid hierarchical culture, and it may have been difficult for first officers who were largely trained in the civilian flight schools to stand up against the their authority in the cockpit, even though they are supposed to challenge each other by design to prevent disaster.

  52. Jokes about people's lives being lost and put in danger = incredibly sad comments from incredibly sad people. Now, I haven't read through this whole blog post, but you are definitely write about people going wrong when they constantly have to relate things back to culture in order to explain things. I wonder why people are acting like a Korean is the only individual who has ever crashed a plane. Errors happen. We are not superhuman.

  53. I was wondering what Igon value was! I am not sure whether the term "culturalism" will stick but I hope it does, in the way TK defines it. Unless you are writing about mathematics, it is hard to keep biases out of reporting, I suppose. But what Gladwell did should re-classify his book as fiction. I hope someone will pick up on TK's blog and report it so as to stimulate a response from Gladwell at some point.

  54. Fantastic post, and you can easily extend this to racism - it quickly results in stereotypes e.g. "Asians can't drive", despites stats showing that white males by far commit the most road traffic accidents per capita. This has been prevalent in the American psyche for so long - a lot of Americans and white folk (majority? such incidents and stereotyping occur far more often than the perceived stereotypes created by whites directed at asians) just seem to prefer to generalise anyone that isn't white and male.

  55. Good, careful analysis. I just want to point out that you didn't coin the term 'culturalism' which has been around for a while, probably originally in anthropology, and used in a variety of ways, including the way you use it.

  56. Had my issues with Gladwell when I picked up his first book with his article about Blues Clues vs. Sesame Street and he referred to Blue the puppy as a boy. You have to question someone who cannot even fact check! And she figures prominently, so it was not just a one-off reference, the whole article is about her show.

  57. Thanks for this very thoughtful essay.

    I understand that Gladwell is annoying, and I agree with many of the comments made about him here. But in the context of trying to understand what happened to Asiana 214, he is also a distraction.

    The "culturalism" thesis is interesting and appreciated. However, if the critique is that the the question of "what caused the Asiana 214 crash?" often begins from a Gladwell-endorsed posture of bias or stereotypes about Korean culture, then perhaps "culturalism" also misses the point.

    As has been discussed here already, cultural factors do play a role in cockpit behavior and aircraft safety, and that's true in different ways for different cultures. American, French, Korean, whatever.

    The relationship between the members of the cockpit crew on Asiana 214 was complicated, which brings one critical question to the forefront: Did the Asiana crew follow the kinds of CRM procedures designed to maximize crew collaboration and minimize the risk of inaction or miscommunication? In other words, did the crash happen not because the crew was Korean, but because they simply neglected to follow international best-practices? For example, although the approach to SFO was clearly unstabilized, why didn't anyone mention that the aircraft was coming in too slowly until 9 seconds before the crash, when the aircraft was just 100 feet above the water?

    We now know that crew interaction was a critical factor for the French pilots aboard Air France 447. In time we will learn what happened aboard Asiana 214.

  58. Very engaging article, and about a subject I thought I had no interest in until I read it.

    "As far as I can tell, Gladwell does not speak Korean." This is the information I was waiting for from the start. It takes some nerve to make declarations about the nature of a language without knowing it.

  59. Kim hyun hee - bomber of KAL858 was not caught in Austria. She was still in the Middle East..Abu Dhabi or Bahrain.

  60. The WSJ published a long article in 1999 that is much better researched than Gladwell's piece; it also claims that Korean Air suffered from a poor safety record and that many observers, including the airline itself, partially blamed culture. Gladwell did a shoddy job sensationalizing the topic, but that doesn't mean that the topic itself is a fraud

  61. As much as I love Koreans and there culture and there people (its my favorite out side of USA of course!! ) I have to disagree with this article. Having flown a plane myself and knowing how crew resource management works and doing several case study assignments on aircraft crashes around the world I have to say that Korean Culture is definitely and issue in the cockpit. This obviously smarter then us Han-meegook picks apart 1 persons super negative view on Korean cockpit culture who is obviously super negative toward Korean Culture. Although I disagree on how negative Dr Gladwells conclusion is on Korean Aviation Culture it is generally agreed upon in the international aviation safety community, that the Korean culture is not conducive to the most successful crew resource management in a cockpit in the aviation industry and that's unfortunately how the way things are. The author of this article is obviously very intelligent (smarter then us probably combined) however he fails to compare other non-english speaking culture accidents (including the worst in commercial aviation history!! involving different cultured cockpits/communicators languages and countries!! and compares flying to golf?? well whatever the case may be I hope he continues to read up on books about aviation saftey when he fly's s first class to/from Korea next time so his articles are more informed. I understand his grievance with offense to the Korean Culture however as he pointed out English is the language of aviation and as much as it pains me to say you have to subscribe to "some" cultural elements to the language as well for things to go smoothly during international flight. Its still early in the investigation and I hope this was not a factor. I am anxious as well to see what the true cause however we may never know for many months to come if not ever.

  62. Great writing and some interesting comments as well...

    I currently live in Korea and you cannot deny that Korean culture has a huge affect on the work environment! I don't really think it is too much of a stretch to say that the culture creates an additional communication barrier while on the job! I do fear this is pilot error and it is entirely possible that Korean culture exacerbated the problem.

    I am (as usual) disappointed in the media - the Americans for sensationalizing and the Koreans for getting defensive. The Asiana CEO came out immediately and declared that it was not pilot error despite not having all the facts or being a pilot himself. In addition there have been many articles here in Korea recently blaming the airport (it is dangerous) the control tower (they failed to give notice of the plane's altitude) even that they were blinded by a bizarre light. ( --- this blaming is also another reflection of Korean culture -- they think this crash represents a national shame for which they are making excuses in order to save face. What are your thoughts on the reactions made by the media?

  63. Awesome read indeed. Thanks for the analysis.

  64. I'm confused as to why there are so many people lauding this article. It doesn't actually respond to any of Gladwell's comments. Moreover, all it does is serve as a main conduit of apologist rhetoric for the crashes that did happen. Korean media was just as bad when it decided to blame everything else EXCEPT the pilots and the airline. And even going on to breathe a sigh of relief when some newscasters found out that the two dead were not Korean, but Chinese? How absolutely embarrassing and pitiful and also absolutely indicative of Korean jingoism and elitism. It's so pathetic. and the fact that there's an entire article trying to say that it wasn't anyone's fault really is just sad.

    1. Korean people in general are highly bigoted towards themselves. They're quite racist- they dislike white westerners, their attitude towards black people is shameful, and they even discriminate against other Asians as well. It is most definitely embarrassing to admit that many Korean people probably did breathe a sigh of relief when they found out that the two dead were Chinese and not Korean, the tragedy of two lost lives notwithstanding. But the wonderful thing about TK is that HE AS AS AWARE OF THESE FLAWS IN KOREAN CULTURE as any non-Korean. So am I. It stems from the fact that he has lived in two worlds- Korea till he was sixteen, and USA from then on. I'm even more steeped in 'Western' culture since I moved to Australia when I was four. Yes, Korean culture is not perfect- there are aspects of it from which I want to distance myself from entirely. But this article is not covering up the flaws in said culture. Nowhere in the article does TK say that the pilots and the airline were not at fault. The plane crashed. Of course it's the pilot and the airline's responsibility. It is on them. But does that mean it's on our culture as well? No, it is not. That is the point that TK is making, and you just missed it.

  65. I appreciate the corrections you make to Gladwell's retelling of the basic facts, especially from a personally informed cultural context. But I find your arguments wholly unconvincing in challenging his conclusion.

    The specifics of Gladwell's interpretation of KAL801 seem to be flawed, but he was not the first to draw the conclusion that cultural factors were making KAL dangerous. At the time, KAL was broadly recognized as having a horrible safety record and "cockpit culture" was internally identified as a major contributing factor. q.v.

    To harp on a specific point that seems popular here, I think we can excuse KAL the first time the Russians shot at their plane for going off course -- as you note, navigational errors are not normally equivalent crashes. But after the Russians had demonstrated their violent intolerance to airspace violations, this class of mistake become a lot harder to excuse. All commercial pilots in the area would have been keenly aware of the dangers of veering specifically into Russian airspace. So the second more deadly military "accident" seems entirely relevant to Gladwell's arguments.

    Also, Gladwell's chapter includes examples from other cultures recognized on Hoefstede's dimensions as also having high power-distance. I read nothing here to challenge those examples, nor the logic leading to the broader conclusion. His specific interpretations of Korean culture might be wrong, but others have reached the same conclusion, and the broader point seems entirely valid. Similar analyses have been made in other high-stakes collaborative fields like surgery, and reached similar conclusions. Culturalism feels painfully similar to racism, but I think we can agree that measurable outcomes like saving lives are what matter in the end.

    Finally the golf analogy is highly specious. Gladwell's argument is that culture matters in collaboration, while golf is a purely solo endeavor -- caddy not withstanding.

    1. I think you will benefit from reading my follow-up post, which is right after this post.

  66. TK, if you're going to accuse an esteemed writer of "shoddy fraud," I would think you would want an airtight argument so that you won't be sued for defamation. But your enumerated arguments aren't very convincing:

    (1) Accidents: In 1999, it was common knowledge that KAL was an "accident prone" airline in the aviation industry (an industry I was involved in at the time). Even Kim Daejung publicly criticized KAL. And as other commenters have noted, KAL airplanes were shot down because it went into USSR airspace as a result of pilot errors. It's one thing to drift into Canada. Another thing to drift into Soviet airspace twice in the middle of Cold War as a result of not checking the inflight navigation. I also recall around then that a KAL crashed into the control tower at JFK while it was taxing on the runway. I don't believe anyone died but it was still an accident. It doesn't even seem like you're disputing this point since you concede at the end that Korean airline had a "spotty safety record." So why bring this point up at all?

    (2) Hierarchy: I believe Chris already corrected you on this point.

    (3) Semantics: If it had been possible for the plane to have cleared the terrain, then "there would have been enough time to pull the nose and clear Nimitz Hill" as Gladwell noted. I think you're splitting hairs here. Gladwell is clearly not incorrect in saying this.

    (4) English: You argue that the pilots spoke English 90% of the time; and yet the critical point where they are talking about visibility and the cliff are spoken in Korean (which you translated into English). While I agree with you that Gladwell should have included the entire conversation (and his failure to do so changes the meaning somewhat), I don't think he is incorrect in arguing English is a superior language than Korean in inflight communication (a point Chris addressed). Are you actually arguing that English isn't a superior language for communicating inflight? If so, why? If not, why is this even a point at all?

    Then you go on to (1) confirm Korea had a spotty record ("it is true that Korean Air had a spotty safety record"), which was the point Gladwell made; (2) attribute the spotty record to spotty training from the company growing so fast (why the assumption that spotty training isn't "cultural"?); (3) argue that culture is something that is fixed and cannot be changed ("As long as Koreans remain Koreans, they will communicate poorly, and they will be more prone to plane crashes.") I don't think anyone argued that; not even Gladwell. Clearly, with better training and the mandatory inflight English requirement, Koreans were able to turn the airline industry around - a point made by Gladwell in his book.

    Also, Gladwell noted in Outliers that other hierarchical, highly context cultures were more prone to accidents - Colombia and Brazil. Any thoughts on that?

    It seems to me that you think of culture as something that is innate - something biological and hence subject to racism. This is where I disagree with you. Culture evolves. So do languages. Maybe spotty training and making pilots -- who only logged 3000 hours of flight instead of 4000 hours -- as captains is cultural. Yes, it is because the country was poor and was developing so fast but conditions itself can affect culture. Korean culture right now is very different from Korean culture in the 1980s - 1990s. Even American culture right now is very different from it was in the 1980s - 1990s.

    1. Yes, it is because the country was poor and was developing so fast but conditions itself can affect culture.

      I don't understand this. If poverty and too-fast development are the causes, what's the point of introducing an added element of "culture"?

    2. Because I think of culture as something a society can adopt in response to the circumstances of that particular time. For example, Koreans in general eat really fast. Don't you think that has something to do with poverty and the lack of food in the past and having a communal plate? Or do you think we are just innately impatient or due to some other reason? Or let's say, the shoddy workmanship in China or Bangladesh. Isn't that more of a reflection of poverty and rapid development than some innate quality of that ethnicity? I don't find many attributes to be innate to specific group of people. I think culture is something people develop over time in response to the conditions they are in. Even religion can influence culture. Christianity -> Crusades -> whites begin exploration and expansion. Or Judaism -> charging interest is ok (Christians considered it usury) and Jews couldn't own land in Europe -> Jews became merchants and bankers (hence the cultural attributes ascribed to them). Or Confucianism -> social hierarchy. Or even law - Litigious society -> good craftsmanship as a result of potential liability. Anyway, the list is endless.

      I don't think anyone (intelligent anyway) is arguing that Koreans are innately accident prone (other than those retards making racist jokes). When I was reading Outliers, I didn't find Gladwell's point offensive. I do think that Korea, Columbia, etc. have a high-context and hierarchical language/culture, which may not be best for inflight communication. That being said, I have no idea why Asiana crashed. But you have to agree that since Greenberg went to KAL, they have been doing extremely well in the safety department.

    3. I don't think you understood my question. Your point is that culture is an outgrowth of the factual circumstances. Ok, I get that. Then my question is: why do we even bother with this concept called "culture"? Why is it not enough to just look at the factual circumstances? Why do you have to introduce this idea of "culture" at all, when just explaining the facts will explain the whole story?

    4. Because it is difficult to explain the complex causes and the word culture is just a catch-all phrase that is simpler -- Korea was a rapidly developing country with pilots who haven't had a lot of commercial jet experience. So KAL got a lot of ex military personnel to fly its planes but they didn't have experience flying commercial jets either, especially Boeings that require 2 copilots sharing equal duties. Couple that with hierarchical nature of Korean society in which deference is given to senior officers and disagreeing with your superiors is frowned upon and high context language that may not be as direct as English, they led to a number of accidents by KAL. I think that explanation makes sense -- Colombia's situation (similar to Korea's) and the fact that KAL had an excellent track record after Greenberg's overhaul make this argument more plausible.

      I am curious - don't you think Koreans in general (present company excluded) don't like to disagree or correct colleagues, especially publicly? And isn't it disrespectful to correct the elderly? And wouldn't failure to speak up to correct someone increase the likelihood of accidents? Doesn't Korea have a heavy drinking culture - like the Irish and the Russians. Isn't that culture?

    5. Because it is difficult to explain the complex causes and the word culture is just a catch-all phrase that is simpler

      See, this is where we differ. I don't think it is all that difficult, and using the word "culture" does not add anything. To the extent it makes anything simpler, it loses valuable nuances.

      don't you think Koreans in general (present company excluded) don't like to disagree or correct colleagues, especially publicly? And isn't it disrespectful to correct the elderly? . . . Doesn't Korea have a heavy drinking culture - like the Irish and the Russians. Isn't that culture?

      Sure, those characters are culture. But they are not static, and they are not unique to Koreans. So using the word "culture" to explain anything further obscures more than it illuminates.

    6. Interesting. So when would cultural explanations ever be legitimate?

      The world has become so PC.

    7. Because the group that has most influence in society creates and maintains those stereotypes so that people believe it, even though the stats say otherwise..

      "Asians are bad drivers" ------ despite whites having far more road accidents per capita.

      " Are you actually arguing that English isn't a superior language for communicating inflight?"
      Superiority complex confirmed.

    8. Dear Ms. Melon:
      There could always be different explanations. Koreans might eat fast because nearly all Korean men serve in the military where food is just fuel you have to push down to your stomach as fast as you can. After two to three years of eating fast, it's hard to go back to eating slowly, and such habit affects the people around, especially family because they regularly eat together.
      It could be the poverty thing, or it could be an inherent cultural thing; Koreans love to get things done quickly.
      It's also possible that Koreans eat fast because most of them grew up with lots of siblings (not anymore). Just having many siblings, regardless whether you live in a poor or rich country, might cause one to eat faster because siblings simply fight over things. Two of my college friends have more than two siblings, and they can eat a sandwich at a blink of an eye.
      Or maybe it's little bit of all those mixed up.
      How could we be certain?

    9. Why does nobody seem to understand that as a Korean company that has had a full 25 years of flying experience, surely Asiana (and KAL for that matter, after the Guam incident) must have had a procedure/policy in place regulating 'cockpit hierarchy' and 'miscommunications' caused by the 'subtle and indirect' nature of the Korean language/culture?! Good lord, even if English wasn't mandatory in the cockpit, surely the people who ACTUALLY SPEAK KOREAN would be proficient enough that they can understand the subtle nuances of their own language. The point that English is a superior language in cockpit/surgery situations because of a lack of honorifics is complete rubbish. I can understand why people may say English is a superior language in the cockpit/surgery room, because as TK said many Korean pilots/surgeons learn English terminology, but 'English is superior because there is less chance of a misunderstanding'?! I'd think that there is a HIGHER chance of misunderstandings if the pilots/surgeons are speaking in a second language and not their native tongue. Honestly.

    10. tjekslgnakd, I agree with you that there can be many reasons for the development of a cultural trait - like eating fast. My point was that circumstances influence culture and that culture is not a static thing.

      Regarding the Korean language, Korean is a high context language whereas English isn't; furthermore, Koreans are less likely than Americans to disagree or correct their superiors (do you disagree with this?). Also, control towers communicate in English, the airplane controls and operating manual are also written in English. All of these factors make English the superior language in inflight communication. There have been studies done on this subject in the aviation industry. The fact that KAL has had less accidents since Greenberg's overhaul makes this argument more plausible. It's not a matter of cultural superiority. I never said English was a superior language to Korean in all areas.

      As for "Asians are bad drivers" -- I don't necessarily subscribe to this. But you have to wonder where the comment came from (and why target Asians vs. blacks or Hispanics?) It could be that whites have more accidents because they drive faster. It could be that Asians are more likely to cut people off but don't get into accidents because they drive slower. It would be that the comment factors in all the Asian women in the tri-state area who don't drive (I am a Korean-American women and I have many, many friends who can't drive.) How is that different from the stereotype that "women are bad drivers?" Does that comment offend you equally? My point is that instead of accepting or rejecting a stereotype outright out of ethnocentrism or defensiveness, people should try to approach this topic more analytically and take the good when it makes sense. For example, TK has once mentioned that other races can learn from the Asian-American model minority narrative instead of getting defensive about it. Isn't that culturalism? Yes, it is a fact that on average, Asians are more successful than other races so it is factually supported (just like KAL being accident prone and turning itself around is factually supported). It is nevertheless culturalism.

  67. First, Gladwell is wrong. His ideas about Korea are poorly researched, and inaccurate.
    Second, Korean culture has produced dreadful training, producing flight crews that crashed a jet plane on a sunny day with no wind, and then, to prove their macho lack of decision, told the passengers to stay in their seats for 90 seconds. The evidence as put forth by some of the former trainers explains the problem exactly. Koreans are so worried about reputation and face, that a bad grade means that the instructor should be fired, and that cheating to get a passing grade is OK. This resonates with the Chinese test-takers who were so angry last week about not being allowed to cheat. Just as the need to avoid shamming a company is at its extreme in the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where a country is drenched in radiation rather than embarrass the utility company.

    The Asian culture of 'face' and lack of accountability is a real drag. As long as Asian companies behave according to this stereotype, and the evidence is clear that they do, they will remain on the outside of modern technology, with the US and the EU always on the edge of banning Asian airlines from the skies.

    The solution is simple. Regulators need to grow a pair. One person at the head of civil air training, or product safety, or general aviation safety needs to step up, make sure Korean and all Asian airlines get away from the Asia model of never taking responsibility, and get the training they apparently so desperately need.

  68. This is an excellent article. One point I would make is that what you call "culturalism" is very close to what anthropologists call ethnocentrism. Maybe not absolutely identical, but very close - close enough that ethnocentrism would seem to be worth mentioning in your piece.

    By the way, one of my pet gripes along these lines is writers who attribute any quality to an individual's ancestry, as in, "She responded with her quick Irish wit," or, "His Russian intransigence made him difficult to deal with."


    1. Thank you sir. I am realizing that I have much to learn from anthropology.

  69. I very much agree with your article except for one point. Culturalism _can be_ (not "is always") appropriate when investigating the failures of complex systems. Two aviation related examples: the cultural failure within NASA that led to the Challenger disaster (also mentioned in another comment) and the possible cultural problem relating to the structure and nature of American capitalism and technodeterminism that may have led to battery problems with the 787. It also looks likely that cultural dynamics may have enabled/encouraged the Chernobyl event. These kinds of analysis have led to explicit development of work cultures for, indeed, operating theatres and cockpits, among others. o I'm OK in principle with it being within the scope of analysis of failure for any complex system.

    I say this without meaning to challenge the meat of your excellent post. With this particular accident, and the early days of the investigation, and I do see it as a lazy residual racism for people who really otherwise might not be racist.

    As for my own bit of culturalism: in this case I think it is also stoked by an american predisposition to consider that "somebody must be responsible." The idea of saying "this is a statistical outlier and sometimes these things will happen no matter what" seems to have become unacceptable. The closest way to say it in the American language is "act of god". I'm pretty certain this accident will not be ruled to be an act of any god.

    1. Replying to myself to clarify -- upon reflection the "cultural analyses" that make sense might only apply at scales smaller than national. I realise my examples were all from specific subcultures (even the Chernobyl example applies to a subculture within the soviet state, not some sort of "Russian" or "Ukranian" culture).

    2. That is essentially my stance as well. Cultural analysis is highly context-dependent, and a national level analysis will be wrong more often than it will be right.

  70. "walk down the Times Square". And now I'm going to go eat the lunch!

    "Korean government initiated an aggressive turn-around..." wait, NOW we don't need articles?

    I kid, I kid... but for someone who was such a stickler about your qualifications, you do open yourself up to uncharitable nitpicks.

    On substance, though - great article, very thought-provoking, plus I can't get enough of people calling Gladwell a pseudoscientific fraud.

    1. Thanks! I particularly appreciate the grammatical corrections, because I never get them all right. I didn't learn English until I was 16, so articles and prepositions are the devil for me.

      The second mistake is deliberate, however. I intentionally omit all "the"s in front of "Korean", because of my pen name. :)

  71. About the Air Force part:
    The captain of the KAL 801 was not a non-commissioned officer; he was a commissioned officer just like the first officer and the flight engineer of KAL 801. The KAL captain's service was not mandatory either.
    Attending and graduating from the Air Force academy (AFA) is one of the few ways of becoming an officer. Successful completion of the ROTC and the Officer Training School* (OTS) also mean commissioning, normally as a second lieutenant (소위) just like the AFA graduates. To get into the OTS, a bachelor's degree is required, and competitive application process entails written exams, interviews, physical tests, and background check. Even if you want to go to the OTS, you cannot unless you get accepted. Serving as a commissioned officer replaces the mandatory service, and the rule applies to graduates of both the AFA and the OTS. Serving as an officer, however, means longer service. I do not know exact length back in the 70s, but now the OTS graduates are required to serve for three years--thirteen weeks of training in the OTS doesn't count toward the three years, so it's really thirty-nine months. Army soldiers serve for about 22 months.

    *The OTS used to be called 간부후보생학교. Now it's called 장교교육대대. Officer candidates are now called 학사사관후보생 instead of 간부후보생.

    Note: the Navy calls the same program "OCS (Officer Candidate School)."

  72. Thought provoking and insightful as usual. Thanks for the informative post.

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  74. A few problems with The Korean’s explanation:

    (1) He obviously despises the "cultural" explanation, which he describes as being more often imagined than real (without any backup on that claim). But scientifically speaking, how else are social scientists to analyze outliers found over and over again in particular cultures? Dumb luck? These aren't Southwest planes going down.
    Using this guy's golf example: If Koreans could not consistently land a putt, then it was discovered that Korean golfers couldn't say no to their caddies and were using 5 irons to putt with, a cultural explanation would be valid, whether The Korean likes it or not.

    (2) The Korean uses the same "fallacies" to critique Gladwell with which he tries to expose Gladwell. He writes:"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..."
    I find it strange that The Korean doesn't seek out the reason the Korean flight "wandered" into Russian air space. Does The Korean have an alternative explanation? Were both officers asleep at the wheel? Drunk? Why did both pilots miss this horribly important point? The Korean just admits this could be attributed to pilot error. Uh, yeah. Big Oops.

    (3) His examples of Gladwell's "egregious misquotations" are not egregious at all. Gladwell's main point is never sufficiently addressed. Why would the 1st officer feel compelled to stay quiet instead of react? The “possibility” of missing the mountain or the certainty of it aren’t the larger issue here.

    (4) The Korean’s point about speaking in English v. Korean (his point #4) misses the greater argument. The cultural influences still exist even if the pilots chose to converse in Pig Latin. These were not Americans who chose to limit themselves to the contraints of an Asian language and its traditions. They were Korean.

    (5) For The Korean to even indirectly equate a social scientific form of questioning (with regard to culture) with racism is ignorant in every sense of the word. He feels like Gladwell is stereotyping instead of asking the pertinent questions. I think the question "Why didn't the 1st officer scream 'We're about to hit a mountain'" is a pertinent question. Either way, Gladwell brought up an interesting point - one that resonates with many American expats who move to South Korea. Often their experience with Korean culture allows them to see a hierarchal structure in place that the indigenous are possibly blind to (at least partially). Koreans are often accused of being blindly deferential to superiors, even when it is obviously not expedient. To even insinuate this sort of cultural observation is somehow racist shows the weakness of The Korean’s argument. He still hasn't disproven Gladwell's premise, although he deigns to call it garbage.

    (6) The Korean is…well…Korean. This fact doesn’t exclude him from the right to comment, nor does it make his arguments any more or less correct. It does, however, beg the question why he needs to do so in such an emotional way. Whether he likes it or not, I doubt this guy would feel compelled to demonstrate Gladwell’s premise as “garbage” if he were Swedish. The Korean has still completely failed to address the larger question in the first place: "Why are all these Korean planes going down?"

    Summary: This guy hurts his own arguments (which are unscientific in the first place) with emotional comments and half-baked criticisms.

    1. Benny,

      (2) TK did mention that Korean planes wandering into Russian airspace could be viewed as pilots' fault, but he also wrote that such explanation is not completely fair. TK and Gladwell do not mention how often these "wanderings" happen. Maybe they happen often, but are unreported because the planes don't get shot down. Or maybe the ground crew (or the Russian air force!) has partial responsibility as they failed to warn the pilot. How about the North Korean terrorist attack case? Sure, it's only one case, but one out of seven mentioned is significant. That's 14%. You surely wouldn't blame AA/UA for 9/11? So I'm not saying it wasn't the pilot's fault. What I am saying is that the statistics can be misleading. Maybe American Airlines has less accidents because its planes don't get shot down by Canadians.

      (3) TK answered "why would the 1st officer feel compelled to stay quiet instead of react?" by writing that he did speak up. Besides, what is Gladwell's main point? Isn't it that Korean culture caused the airplane crashes? One of the supporting arguments is that the first officer and flight engineer stayed silent because of the seniority of the pilot. If this is not true (for example, they did speak up) then Gladwell's point stands on shakier ground.

      (4) Your argument is too simple. You can't say that the change in (form of) language has absolutely no effect in manners of speech. Because it does. Language might not "drive" culture, but you cannot deny that it plays a significant role. You might have been better off arguing that the crew was using Korean in the quotation selected by Gladwell and TK.

      (6) TK being Korean does give him more authority, because he largely talks from his own knowledge of Korean culture. If he was Swedish who has never been to Korea, you would criticize him for failing to back up more of his points, no?

    2. TK was too aggressive on some parts, yes. He should not assume that Gladwell is using stereotypes or brand him "culturalist". TK is arguing that Korean plane crashes are not due to cultural reason, albeit affected by it.

      One could really argue both sides, whether culture caused the accidents or it did not. Again, whether culture played a role is not the question. It did. What is being asked is, how significant was its role?

  75. Three young girls were killed in this Air crash.
    As per the Coroner report, one of these girls was actually killed by a Fire Engine.

    It will be interesting to see how this author "attributes" this death to.
    Would it get classified as "bulldozing culture" ?
    I didnt have the patience of reading this long article due to intermittent reference of Golf which seemed rather irrelevant and insensitive to this topic, but is there any mention of how crew behaved to save lives of the passengers ?
    I guess it was worth a praise, but where a frustrated air crew member gets of the aircraft by opening emergency gate, and gets praised as a hero, I think its hard for someone to understand what culture really is.
    As Korean Giants like Samsung, Hyundai start doing well all over the world, start "hurting" global / local giants, it will be become fashionable and intellectual to talk about Korean culture.
    No need to take this so seriously.

  76. "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."

    Um, no it's not. Teenager can do it. Flying a plane is like driving a car in some respects - easier, in many respects (usually no need to worry about some drunk running a stop sign at 30,000 feet). It appears like a 'miracle' to the tragically ill-informed like the authoer here because mistakes are usually A Big Deal, unlike a fender-bender on I-94, but landing a plane essentially requires the skill needed to parallel park. Seriously.

    In the Asiana flight, on a perfectly working plane, beautiful - perfect, even - weather conditions, visibility to infinity? Crashing was the equivalent of being in the Disney Land parking lot and hitting the only other car parked there.

    The whole golf/airlines analogy is ridiculous, as has been rightly pointed out already. No, I 'didn't miss your point', I think you tried to make a point with the analogy and failed miserably.

    "Do you really think the tendency will hold when the pilots are hurtling toward killing themselves and hundreds of others? "

    Having seen it first hand, yes. Yes I do.

    Love how people not agreeing with your thesis 'missed the point'. Hint: If they didn't get the point, it's not the reader's fault.

    1. S. Urista, I won't say you missed the point. Because I don't even know what you're arguing. If time allows, can you please explain your points?

      You said...
      1) Flying a plane is easy
      2) Asiana plane crashed in good weather
      3) Golf/airlines analogy is ridiculous
      4) Pilots will put priority on their manners in emergency situations


      1) Well, I'm not a pilot, so I don't know. Are you a pilot? If flying a plane was so easy, why do they train pilots so extensively? Also, how is this relevant?
      2) What are you trying to argue? How is this relevant?
      3) Why is the analogy ridiculous? Please explain.
      4) Where did you see this first hand?

      I thought the whole discussion was at least somehow related to culture, but your comment does not mention that concept.

  77. 1) Yes, although a long time ago (private pilate's license a loooong time ago). In high school I had friends who were flying solo about the same time they got their driver's permit. The 'extensive pilot training' is focus less on 'how to fly the plane' and more on flight safety: how to recognize potential issues before they become a problem, how to handle emergencies, faulty equipment, bad weather etc.

    2)It's relevant because in the circumstances involved, the pilots in the cockpit really really have to screw up big-time to crash the plane. No mechanical issues that I'm aware of. Beautiful weather. Visibility not an issue. No emergencies in the cockpit that I'm aware of.

    Planes literally fly themselves, and the plane will land where you point it. How the crew didn't realize they were too low is baffling. And I'm assuming the runway had a standard, working visual approach slope indicator that no pilot in the world could possibly miss, and would have certainly told everyone in the cockpit they were too low ('red over red / you're dead').

    The entire cockpit somehow missed the most obvious clues in the world. Crashing a plane in these circumstances takes either truly astounding incomptence (hard to believe an entire cockpit of professional pilots didn't know how to fly a plane)....or maybe someone didn't speak up when they should have.

    3) Reasons already outlined in sufficient detail by others above.

    4) Numerous examples, not all related to 'life and death' situations but that were clearly 'this is very very wrong but I won't speak up because I don't want to risk embarrasing my boss' etc. It's not specific to Korean culture by any means (see crash, Tenerife).

  78. Benny7/19/2013 12:35 PM

    A few problems with The Korean’s explanation:

    (1) He obviously despises the "cultural" explanation, which he describes as being more often imagined than real (without any backup on that claim). But scientifically speaking, how else are social scientists to analyze outliers found over and over again in particular cultures? Dumb luck? These aren't Southwest planes going down.

    You're right, it's not like a Southwest plan crashed recently. There has to be a cultural reason why that flight crashed. I refuse to see it as merely a technical accident. Either way, let's slap some irrelevant cultural reason of why Americans are terrible pilots and apparently produce shoddy landing gear.

    1. no no why they're bad drivers and even Americans with expert training and constant drilling can't manage to overcome their 'Mericanness and avoid running over and killing girls lying on the runway.

  79. TK: Despite your aversion to culturalism, you have a lot of praise for 이원복's 먼나라 이웃나라, which in my view is an unabashed orgy of over-simplified culturalism. Worse is that its main readers are children who, at a most uninformed and impressionable age, can easily form misguided biases on different nationalities that are of exactly the same nature as what you take issue with in this post. Don't you think such a comic series is dangerous?

    1. While I agree with your characterization of the book, I don't think I praised 먼 나라 이웃 나라. I'm pretty sure all I ever said about the book was that it influenced me as a child.

    2. kdufos your doing it rite. but I ate a bad dumpling in Korea once. Discuss.

  80. I finally sat down for 15 minutes to read the entire article. Such a great work! It opened a new perspective for me. Culturalism is dangerous and can be harmful.

  81. Great article. I wish I would have read it sooner and prevented words from coming out of mouth which confirm my ignorance.

  82. Your points are just so exciting. The moral... involve relevant stakeholders in your work or in your process. We'll all benefit if we involve relevant stakeholders in our work. AND, narrow views produce narrow, and harmful outcomes or conclusions. Build a nuanced view of the world that honors people as individuals.

    My hope is that Gladwell desires to know the truth. And, i hope if he read this that he would comment and participate and reveal his process. I'm holding judgement on the nastiness of his negligence as I'd really like to hear his reaction to this critical account of his work. I'm also hoping that his intent is genuine (ok... lacking rigor, offensively so) and not misled by perilous interest in stretching truth to create dramatic narrative in order to make millions off a block buster book.

  83. I have always been skeptical of Malcolm Gladwell, so I am glad to see my position vindicated so eloquently. Superb piece of writing, well done.

  84. Great post! I enjoyed it! Then I enjoyed it writing about it too.

  85. Cultures lie on a spectrum. They also have central tendencies on a variety of factors - power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity et. al. And so, not all persons have all the primary tendencies of a culture - as each being can very well be iconoclastic, if they desire.

    Gladwell, who obviously struck a negative cord with you, has at least introduce us to a cultural differences conversation. I am 100% sure he had an editor, who may be partly responsible for obvious oversights, omissions, and factual errors. That's doesn't free Gladwell from responsibility for what he writes, but it puts a context to it. Rightly, he should be able to do a better job on inconsistencies.

    But, you also projected an indictment on his motivations - as if he was attacking you personally.
    ----"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."----

    As a southern-born U.S. male, I should be equally offended by his referencing a U. of Michigan study about aggressive behavior, which boils down a whole group of people to NOT being able think rationally about threats, unable to let go of slights.

    But I too need not defend Gladwell at all. He' likely attached a label in that passage too. Should I be writing a critique to say, don't worry about where I came from???

    You are right that we are individuals. But we too are programmed through a whole host of cultural, educational, and parental cues. If you didn't, well, you must be a rare breed to have never been at all stimulated in such manners. And of course, you'd say that.

    It's fine to be critical. But you also have a duty (or honor to uphold) in refuting anything Gladwell says. It's the title of your blog - seems very important to you to define yourself as "Korean." So, while I understand the host of mistakes you found in the recounting his blunders,
    don't equate his story with the very worst in humanity.

    ---"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."----

    I'd say the opposite. If Gladwell mentioned nothing, this crash would be glossed over, and unimportant. (I mean we got more crashes for media consumption.)

    The cultural identity question has become more relevant even through Gladwell's errors. Seems, people, like myself, actually took the time to write your blog. And I have no Korean experiences other than an East Asian Politics class at Purdue, where, 75% of my classmates were Korean, Chinese, and Japanese.

    Keep making a difference, individually, but don't ascribe too many motivations (other than selling copy) to besmirch your culture. BTW, Gladwell's "Canadian" so there never offensive, right? (That's a joke...)


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