Reading for writers: Breakdown of “Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes” from Ask A Korean!

The best writers I know also happen to be the best readers. Why that might be true is not hard to understand. The best readers understand how a text leads a reader through a set of ideas. They see the individual choices the author made and understand the strategy behind those choices. The best writers find ways to incorporate those strategies in their own writing.

Learning to read in this way takes some practice. You must read critically, compare the text to other similar texts, and think about how the text moved you. I occasionally try to speed up that process by taking a piece of writing that I find effective and annotating it for my students to show them how I see it working. That’s what I will be doing here.

The piece of text I’ve chosen popped up in my wife’s RSS feed following the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco earlier this year. She sent it to me because she knows that I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and she thought it was a great deconstruction of one of Gladwell’s greatest sins, taking the kernel of an idea or theory and extending it past its intended usefulness. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he does this. Gladwell is an expert journalist with an interest in psychology, sociology, and other sciences. Many experts in those fields feel that Gladwell oversimplifies topics. However, his writing demonstrates his eye for the interesting and counterintuitive, and when he finds that, he writes fantastic prose to introduce that concept to a non-expert audience. I’ve always equated reading Gladwell to watching reality television; you know you can’t really trust what you see to be entirely the truth of people’s lives, but the results can be entertaining and thought provoking nevertheless. With this opinion of Gladwell in mind, I had figured that the link my wife sent me would recycle the same criticisms that I’ve already read. The fact that it did not is part of the reason that I’ve chosen the text below: it forced me to think in ways that I hadn’t in the past. That’s a sign of good writing.

Photo from the flickr account of State Library of Victoria Collections

Photo from the flickr account of State Library of Victoria Collections

The text below comes from the blog, Ask a Korean! That name explains what the blog does. The main author, who goes by The Korean (hereafter, I’ll just use TK), takes queries via email and then writes up an explanation based on his perspective as someone who has experienced both Korean and American cultures. The blog’s record of success (over 3.4 million visitors, 6.5 million page views, and appearances in national media) speaks to the quality of the posts as well as the author’s prolificness.

I’ve asked for and was graciously granted permission by TK to reproduce the post in its entirety and to insert my own commentary. After this point, all of my words will appear in italics and will be indented.

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.

These first three paragraphs relate an anecdote, which works as an introduction because it takes advantage of the reader’s preference for narratives. Generally, we make sense of our lives as stories, so providing one for your reader offers an opportunity to get them thinking about things in the same way you do. Narratives, however, only work when they are relevant to the argument. Generally, relevant narratives will do one of two things: provide a context or provide an analogous situation to something you want to discuss (although doing both is not out of the question.) A contextual story will relate information directly related to the argument, such as an article about marriage during the Regency period in England starting with a story of an interesting marriage that happened in 1816. An analogous narrative is related in that it wants you to focus on the idea behind the story. That’s what we have here. TK wants us to think about how the high level of play in professional golf makes us more critical of mistakes because he’s going to be talking about how mistakes in landing a plane encourage the same type of hypercritical lens.

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?

These two paragraphs work together. The first paragraph uses specific golf terminology to discuss how a mistake may be analyzed. The terminology and sophistication of the analysis helps to develop the authority of TK’s voice. He appears qualified to analyze a golf swing. The second paragraph takes that same voice to extend that analysis and explore an unexpected connection between the golfer’s country of origin and the way they play the game. As a reader, I look at that second paragraph and say, “Ok, not sure if I buy this, but he sounded so knowledgeable about the golf swing. I’ll stick with this for a bit, and maybe I’ll learn something new.” Essentially, TK establishes an authorial voice, which baits the reader into trusting him. By doing so, the reader sees the extremes this passive trust can take us to.

The rhetorical move here is very clever because he is doing exactly what he wants to criticize Gladwell for doing, using a small amount of expertise to make claims and connections that are unwarranted. I also hear a bit of a parody of Gladwell’s voice: the pivot from the expected to the unexpected, the short declarative sentence moving into longer explanatory sentences, the build up to the delayed reveal of the main point: these are Gladwell’s favorite tics, and he deploys them well. I should say that this could be coincidental and still work. In other words, perhaps TK didn’t intend to parody Gladwell, and only a few readers might see the parody, but it aids in making the point and doesn’t cause a distraction if the reader misses it.

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?

These two short paragraphs do what we thought the previous two paragraphs were supposed to do: they introduce the real problem that he wants to discuss and explore. TK uses the bait and switch to show the seriousness of the problem (i.e. as readers we fell for the overgeneralization). A straight retelling of the facts on this type of thinking (if there are even facts like those available) probably would not have the same effect.

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.

In graduate school, I was told throw all of my theoretical cards on the table early in the paper. If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry; I didn’t get it at the time either. The introduction of culturalism in this paragraph is, however, a good example of precisely that. To understand why, first, let’s get a working definition for theory. Theory in writing essentially refers to an explanation for a pattern observed over time. Introducing the theory on which he bases a lot of his assumptions allows us to follow along with TK. At the same time, theories are generally complex because they take many concrete observations of the world and transform them into an abstract explanation for how that is working. When just a summary of the theory is presented, it can sound like an oversimplification, and a more critical reader might want to know where this theory comes from. However, justifying a theory generally ends up sounding more philosophical and takes up more space than might be necessary. What TK does here then is a good example of how to introduce a theory into an essay. He gives a brief overview of his theory of culturalism, but instead of going into depth, he links to another post where he’s already done that. That allows TK to dive into his argument and the critical reader to understand the origin of the assumptions that TK makes in the argument.

[As a side note, I had to look up the Abraham Maslow quote he paraphrases here, which refers to the law of instrument, the tendency to apply a familiar strategy even in a situation where it might not be the best tool for the job. Working in this paraphrase is not vital to understanding culturalism, but it does help. It also is another way that the author builds authority. Essentially, it makes him seem smarter. Quoting just for the sake of quoting won’t get you far, but I encourage quoting when you see a source has something to say that will help your reader understand your argument. To paraphrase Darth Vader, “Do not underestimate the power of a well-placed quotation.” See what I did there. Now you’re thinking, here’s this awesome guy who can manipulate Star Wars quotes from memory; how can I become his friend? Or perhaps the connection wasn’t strong enough to evoke the former-Sith Lord.]

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?

The trouble with analogies is that readers don’t always get them, so I always encourage prose writers to explain their thinking like TK does here. His logical progression, from seeing the deviation in perfection to swarming around it and trying to explain it to over-explaining using culturalism, has a number of comparisons that we may doubt without the links to the news articles from the mainstream media.

[Another side note: As a writing consultant talking to students in classes across the curriculum, the idea of common knowledge is tough because I can’t actually answer the question of which facts to cite in every circumstance. That’s one of the tricky things about common knowledge: what counts as common knowledge in some places is not common knowledge in others, and the litmus test of whether you knew it without looking it up doesn’t always fly. The phrase, “It is common knowledge that,” works here because the point is not a key one in setting up the argument, but it can be problematic. I already knew this statistic, and it is one that many people have heard, but if this were more formal, academic writing, I’d suggest a citation here. A writer might respond to that by saying, “But I don’t know where I know it from; I just know it.” In the age of the internet, it is generally not hard to find a credible source that provides justification for these types of facts. If you can’t, then perhaps you need to question whether it is actually true or whether this is just some myth passed down without real justification.  If you find it is a myth, then you can bait your friends into bringing up the original fact so that you can say, “Actually, that’s not true. The actual explanation is this…” You’ll look smart, and you’ll thin your crowd of friends by alienating those who can’t deal with your superior intellect.]

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.

Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective [New York Times]

I like the decision to include this quotation from Pinker, who is a well-regarded psychologist and prolific writer, because it shows how an expert reads Gladwell’s simplification of complex ideas. It does two important things: 1. it demonstrates that Gladwell’s prose tends to exaggerate his expertise and 2. it lets TK say that without looking like the bad guy. Pointing out that the writer uses a concept that he can’t even spell makes Gladwell look fairly dumb, and it’d be hard for TK to sound sincere expressing admiration for Gladwell only to later call him dumb. Further, a non-expert calling another non-expert out for misrepresenting the facts is much weaker than an expert doing so. Pinker plays the hatchet man, demonstrating how Gladwell’s expertise is suspect and setting up for the specific line of inquiry this post goes into.

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?

In writing up Gladwell’s theory, TK needs to be clear, concise, and accurate. Clarity and concision simply make it easier for the reader, and most authors understand why they are needed. Accuracy may be even more important. Too many authors exaggerate parts of the theory that they want to discredit, and consequently, they weaken their own argument in the process. If I read this summary and thought that Gladwell’s theory seemed weak right off the bat, then the rest of the essay has less value because it won’t teach me anything new. However, if I can read this and say, “Ok sure, reading that, I could buy that,” and in the process of the rest of the essay the author shows me it is not true then the author has taught me something and I value their essay more.

Ironically, very few journalists understand the power of presenting a plausible explanation and then deconstructing it like Malcolm Gladwell. Part of what makes him so entertaining to read is how he makes you think you’re getting the intuitive explanation before pivoting and showing you a counterintuitive explanation that works a lot better. Here, he gets a bit of his own medicine.

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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.

There is a lot that any writer can learn from understanding the techniques that both Gladwell and TK use to present their arguments, so I’m going to spend some time on each of them here.

First, let’s look at what Gladwell does because it’s kind of tricky. Gladwell’s ultimate goal is to propose the theory that a type of deference to hierarchy in Korean culture dangerously inhibited cockpit communication and caused plane crashes. However, in order to have a space to present that theory, one must have a pattern to explain. Gladwell really only elaborates on the Guam crash, but he wants the reader to connect that crash to the rest of the crashes as part of a pattern. To encourage this, he lists the plane crashes in quick succession, without much reflection on any of them. In doing so, the reader starts to feel like there was something systemic about the airline and plane crashes.

Gladwell’s argument is strengthened not by what he writes about but by how he relates those facts. By listing a number of plane crashes one after another, the reader feels overwhelmed. That manufactures a sense of urgency that not only primes us to accept his explanation, but it also creates this sense that as we move forward, the stakes of this investigation are high. As readers, we think, “Wow, this is bad. We really need to figure this out. Tell me, Malcolm, what was wrong?” An interesting thing about this strategy is that after he tells us about the safety record of the airline, we don’t need to remember the cause for the sense of an emergency to continue feeling it. Logical arguments depend on language; we can only think about a small bit of language for a short period of time, so for a logical argument to be remembered, it needs to be very clearly articulated. Emotion on the other hand tends to stick around even after the thoughts that caused the emotion are forgotten. Think about how you feel if you narrowly escape a car crash. You are out of danger and may not even be thinking about the near miss, but you still have that anxious sense of alertness pulsing through you. The way Gladwell tells his story takes advantage of both of these things. The facts he presents are alarming, which ramps up our emotion, but by refraining from adding too many details, we forget why we felt that way earlier in the essay, which is convenient because as TK points out, the essay’s theory doesn’t explain a good chunk of the crashes.

In the interest of fairly representing Gladwell, I want to add a couple of things. First, I’m not using any of his words here besides the ones that TK has included in his post, but anyone who really wants to know how he wrote this up should go to the original source in Outliers. In this section, Gladwell describes the reactions to the crash by the aviation community around the world, which demonstrates the crisis is not his invention. However, what I want to point out here is not the importance of what he says but how he says it. Readers who are suspicious of Gladwell may take issue with my insistence that he is presenting facts, but everything he says did actually happen. Younger writers need to remember that facts do not mean truth. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.” Nothing that Gladwell says is a lie, but TK feels that he misuses facts to create an inaccurate impression, and I agree.

In corresponding with TK over email to ask permission to do this to his article, he shared that he is an attorney, and that really shows here as he effectively takes apart Gladwell’s claims regarding Korean Air. To effectively dissect Gladwell’s point, TK simply returns to the actual facts of those cases and tests whether Gladwell’s sense of urgency is justified. In the context of these new facts, it loses a lot of its appeal because the emotional urgency we feel when getting all of those crashes in a row is disrupted by the deeper investigation of the facts behind a couple of those cases. That’s it. He simply looks at the facts and finds relevant points that Gladwell left out. In presenting them, they make the reader suspicious of Gladwell’s presentation of the crisis.

In looking at these two explanations, you see that what Gladwell does is actually harder to pull off. However, look at how simple it is to undo Gladwell’s work by returning to the context for his claims. Placing facts into context is the bedrock of strong writing, and it almost always works to turn up something interesting. I always encourage writers to take the time to read around in their subject, perhaps even reading off on some tangent. However, too many young writers treat research as a treasure hunt for facts to support something they already believe. (I call this thesis-first writing, and I’ll talk about it more later.) A lot of student writers take the first five sources that pass muster because they see reading a source that they can’t directly use in their paper as a waste of their time. TK’s argument here shows that finding a great source can be a big time saver because it opens up possibilities for the argument. I don’t know TK, so I can’t say whether or not he knew about the cause to all of these crashes without looking them up. My sense is that he knew just enough to know a deeper search would be fruitful, which wouldn’t be the case for all writers. However, the point to take away is that once he had these facts, he could very simply and effectively take apart Gladwell’s points.

(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.

Not much needs to be said here. This is the same technique of going to the context for the facts that Gladwell uses and introducing relevant facts he left out; again, what he does here is pretty simple if you have the knowledge that TK has (or if you read around enough to find it.)

(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 ispossible 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.”

While breaking this down for analysis, I have to admit that I questioned the length of this section and its placement. It seems like such an important point in discrediting Gladwell’s theory because it questions whether the plane could have been saved at all. If more direct cockpit communication didn’t save the plane, then Gladwell’s argument falls apart.

After rereading the rest of the article, I saw that this paragraph is not as important as one might think to the overall goal of the essay. To show that Gladwell is irresponsibly practicing culturalism, it is much more important to focus on how he characterizes Korean culture. In that argument, the fact that this misquotation artificially bolsters Gladwell’s argument merely needs to suggest that Gladwell has exaggerated the drama of the situation, setting up for the later blows to Gladwell’s practice of culturalism.

(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.

The work that TK does here is impressive, but again, it follows the same strategy: return to the text, see what it actually says, and point out contradictions. Simple and effective.

Let’s review where the work that TK does in this section leaves us. He has shown that Gladwell inaccurately (and perhaps unethically) described a pattern of crashes at Korean Air, that he misunderstands the complexity of the Korean hierarchy on which he bases his theory, that the theory of the importance of more direct communication might not have averted disaster, and that creating an English-only rule for cockpit communication really did not change things as much as we imagined it might. How could Gladwell miss all this?

My guess is that Gladwell got into a trap of finding a theory and then interpreting evidence so that it would fit that theory. This is thesis-first writing, and we see where it gets us. The lesson here is that writers need to look for both confirmation and contradiction of their thesis when constructing an argument. Finding contradiction seems like a bad thing, but it is actually much more useful in the long run because it shows that an argument is too simple or wrong. By redrafting that theory, an author can construct a better one. When it comes down to it, what we see here is not Gladwell’s Theory of Ethnic Plane Crashes. It comes from David Greenberg, the COO of Korean Air, who analyzed the situation and thought that better English skills would help Korean flight crews become more direct and to avert further crashes. Had Gladwell looked for some of the contradictions that TK found, he could have still found something to write about and asked even more interesting questions. If English-only communication really didn’t change things in the cockpit all that much, what caused the improvements in the safety record? Was the safety record really a crisis that needed intervention or simply a case of bad luck and unfortunate geography, i.e. being an ally of the U.S. in close proximity to the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War? There is a lot he could have explored. His answers might have placed his final essay in a different book than Outliers, but it could be a fascinating commentary nevertheless. He misses that opportunity by squeezing these events to meet the theory.

*           *          *

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.

I really like the amount of Gladwell’s own words that are used here. Most of the time, this amount of quotation is too much because it distracts from the flow of the argument. However, what follows is a very thorough analysis of this passage and having the whole passage lets us read it and look for clues to try and find the parts that TK calls ridiculous.  If this passage came much earlier in the paper, it would be less effective. Long quotations early in the paper are difficult for a reader to parse because we’re not really sure why we are looking at the passage and what we are trying to get. At this point in the paper, TK has taught us how to read Gladwell through his eyes, and we can start to hone in on the parts of this passage that will be important. However, on my own, I can’t read Gladwell and understand exactly why he’s ridiculous here, which builds in value to what TK provides next. I need his background to see Gladwell’s culturalism.

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.

A lot of younger writers equate interpretation with finding the hidden meaning. Interpretation is actually just going to the context and mapping out what we can figure out about something in connection to other ideas. In this section, we have two interpretations of the same phrase: “Do you think it rains more? In this area, here?” To find meaning in this, Gladwell connects it with his ideas about hierarchy in Korean culture, and with those assumptions in mind, he makes a guess at what the first officer meant by this. TK returns to the transcript and sees the comment as an answer to the captain’s previous reply about the rain. Which interpretation is more correct? Because TK has suggested that Gladwell’s suggestions about hierarchy are much more complicated than he lets on, we’d be inclined to side with TK on this one. However, Gladwell’s claim that this was some kind of warning to the captain to be more careful might actually be true although it seems pretty clear that if it is and if it is missed, we can’t explain it by the fact that both pilots are Korean. We need more context. My point here is that a good argument is not the one that presents the absolute true meaning of something (and in fact if meaning were absolute, it wouldn’t be an argument.) Both TK and Gladwell are dealing with incomplete information here, because neither knows for certain the intentions of the first officer. Both have to make assumptions. The better argument then is the one that does a better job of justifying its assumptions.

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.

These paragraphs present a much more complex argument than we’ve previously seen, and TK breaks that argument up into stages. First, he suggests that Gladwell’s claim that the burden for making meaning is on the listener rather than the speaker is exaggerated. Gladwell takes the kernel of truth, Korean is less direct than English, and makes unfounded assumptions about how that functions in Korean culture. That sets up TK to point out the scarcity of Korean voices (outside of the pilots on the recording) who can verify Gladwell’s assertions about Korea. If he were to Ask a Korean! pilot, he might have gotten a different answer.

*          *          *

“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.

Here’s a neat trick that any writer can steal. TK returns to the initial images he had included in his introduction and offers another interpretation of them. Before, he was just trying to show us how silly it is to imagine a connection between two poor shots hit by two golfers who happen to be Canadian. Now, we get that same image serving a dual purpose. First, the return of the image reminds us of the overall topic of culturalism, which is necessary having just read a big chunk of text that was about Gladwell. Second, having just seen the extreme assumptions that Gladwell made, we view this image of two Canadian golfers differently. Now, it is not only an unfruitful question, but it also may be a dangerous one to ask.

The effect of this technique, telling a story or presenting a puzzle in the introduction and then returning to it in the conclusion to reinterpret it, is easily replicated in almost any essay and extremely powerful. Writers are judged by the minds they changed. If they can show readers that they can no longer look at something in the world in the same way, that shows that they have changed minds.

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.

This will be the last time I interject with analysis because after this point, TK arrives at the points he wants to make an impact, and I want to let him. Before that, this seems like a good point to share some of what TK shared with me about how he wrote this post:

Because my day job is being an attorney, much of my writing is inspired by legal writing. In this particular post, I was consciously trying to channel the style of Chief Justice John Roberts, who is probably one of the greatest writers that the Supreme Court has seen since Robert Jackson. I think Justice Roberts writes like a freight train coming down a hill. He slowly piles on more and more freight on the train, until the train starts slowly rolling downward under its own weight, such that by the time it hits the conclusion, the sheer momentum makes it undeniable.

At this point in the essay, after noting the facts that Gladwell misses, how much he is still quoted in response to the Asiana crash, and how ridiculous it is to equate these two crashes, I see this essay as reaching the peak and picking up speed to take it to its conclusion. The momentum allows for the logical connections to get a little looser. If the reader has made it this far and is already on his side, TK can present implications of culturalism, which relate to ethics and ideals and resist a lot of the types of careful textual analysis that have been a strength of the essay so far. We’re on board, we’re ready to complete the journey.

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.

At the close of this essay, it might be a good point to remember that sense of urgency that Gladwell develops early on, and which TK calls into question because there would be another line of inquiry not used here to understand whether it was merited. We know that Korean Air improved its safety record, but the analysis provided does not make it clear that the ethnic theory of plane crashes was the ultimate cause of the problems or the solution. In the Gladwell piece, we never return to those earlier accounts of plane crashes to show a similar pattern in them that evidences the ethnic theory of plane crashes. No transcript from the plane that wandered into Russian airspace is presented with an analysis of how cockpit communication caused that crash. Similarly, we never see any accounts of near disasters that were averted through crew members acting more assertively. However, when we finish Gladwell, we still feel a sense of conclusion at the end of the chapter in Gladwell’s book because he is so successful at associating that sense of urgency with understanding that one Guam crash even though the urgency was evoked by a number of crashes.

Neither TK nor Gladwell has all the answers. In looking at this situation, both have different goals. TK wants us to be aware of the dangers of culturalism. Gladwell wants his readers to think about the unexpected reasons why people succeed. We can’t sit back and say one is correct and one is wrong, nor should we because they are taking on some big abstract ideas and a definitive answer does not exist. Instead, it’s better to understand the context of each of these writings and the presentations of these facts. Within this context, they may both be convincing, even if they disagree. Knowledge comes from dialogue, the accumulation of voices. When it is presented as monologue, it’s nearly impossible to represent a complex subject in a way that everyone agrees. Ultimately, the wisdom we draw from the situations presented comes from how we interpret both sets of facts. To facilitate that type of interpretation, I wanted to include a link to the page where TK addresses Gladwell’s response to the initial post. This link has  links to all of those appropriate pages. (You might also want to pick up Outliers if you have not read it because even going through it skeptically, it is a fascinating, thought provoking read.) Gladwell and TK have been both gracious and assertive in presenting their beliefs. That is to be commended.

After reading this essay and thinking about the implications of culturalism, I keyed in on an assumption that floats around composition studies that essentially states that some cultures, especially Asian cultures, put the burden of interpretation on the reader, while U.S. rhetoric puts the burden of clarity on the author. In other words, if a piece of writing is unclear, the assumption in Asian cultures is that the reader didn’t try hard enough, while the assumption in the U.S. is that it’s the author’s fault. Seeing Gladwell being called out on this point makes me much more suspicious of this belief, which I haven’t really researched for myself. This is a good reminder that every writer, regardless of culture, approaches their task with their own individual past. Culture influences some of that past, but only a small portion. Engaging with that writer and understanding their particular issues means understanding who they are, not what they are.

I want to thank The Korean again for allowing me to reproduce this post in its entirety. I hope that I’ve made doubling up on the reading worthwhile. It certainly feels like it gave me the opportunity to point out some specific techniques that all writers can use, so I’ll probably return to this format in the future. With that in mind, if any readers see this post and have a piece of writing they think would be useful for me to break down, leave a message in the comments or send me an email.


11 Responses to “Reading for writers: Breakdown of “Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes” from Ask A Korean!”

  1. August 13, 2013 at 2:28 am

    I learned so much about good writing from your analysis. Thank you!

  2. 3 Ivy
    August 14, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks for this analysis! It really helps to have a practical example to illustrate how certains techniques could be used – and their downsides if not used properly.

  3. 5 Tim
    September 5, 2013 at 4:58 am

    Good stuff. I liked a lot of things in your treatment, but in particular the “thesis-first writing” thing struck home for me. I remember dudes from college straining and sweating to scratch together enough substantiating material to just barely cobble together a paper. I don’t think they got that you’re supposed to actually learn some stuff *before* you sit in front of the blank screen, at least enough stuff to formulate some decent ideas, and at least well enough to be able to flesh out at least one of those ideas into a coherent argument… and that the act of trying to do that exposes gaps in your understanding that drive more rounds of learning and clarification, which feed into a sounder argument, and so on. Basically, the very idea of what a “paper” is supposed to be about, the core purpose somehow gets lost in the grind and shuffle…. i.e., pursuing intellectually defensible truth, wherever that search may lead, even if you wind up completely reversing your original stance. Being rational versus just rationalizing. I don’t recall ever once in my schooling having anybody break it down that way. The closest we got was in stale commencement addresses — the old “we learn how to learn” saw. 🙂

    • September 5, 2013 at 8:44 am

      Thanks for reading, Tim.
      These are some pretty complex ideas, and they add a lot to the discussion. I appreciate you sharing them. What you are describing makes me think of William Perry’s theory on how college students think about knowledge. They start off thinking a piece of knowledge is either right or wrong, swing the other way to the point where they start to see a multiplicity of opinions without a real way of determining which is more correct, and eventually arrive at a point of seeing knowledge as contingent upon context (hopefully.) Rationalizing instead of thinking rational (a distinction I’d not heard before but I really like) seems to show a regression to the first state for the purposes of producing a paper. I’m not sure many students could tolerate completely reversing their stance on an issue, which is a shame because those end up being great papers and are easier to write; the purpose of writing is to change your readers’ minds, and if you have done enough research that you’ve changed your own mind, all you have to do is take your reader through the process of how your mind changed.

      • 7 Tim
        September 5, 2013 at 11:05 pm

        Cool, I hadn’t heard of Perry’s model. I read the summary here, for reference: http://goo.gl/UpaB3m

        I wonder if all freshmen could be exposed to these ideas early on, so they can recognize in themselves and others the signs of the earlier developmental stages, and thereby move past them more quickly (or at all).

        This isn’t just about writing per se, of course. The students who learn or fail to learn these lessons go out into society, as-is. So much of our interpersonal relations and our behavior as citizens feels mired in the equivalent of the early Perry stages, dualism and multiplicity, to our collective detriment.

        Is it foolishly idealistic to believe that something as seemingly pedantic as striving to promote better undergraduate or even high school writing — honest and insightful, committed to nuanced positions yet tolerant of the murk and contradiction that characterize any human enterprise — could ultimately contribute to a better society?

      • September 6, 2013 at 8:27 am

        I work almost exclusively with first-year students, and pushing students towards the later end of the development cycle is certainly a goal I have. I still try to remind myself and my colleagues that the process is a process, one characterized by exposure to new content and much reflection, so for me, I set Perry’s end stages as a compass heading, and then challenge them to think more deeply by exposing them to contradiction. Part of that is getting them comfortable with temporary confusion. I want them to know that cognitive dissonance is a part of the process of understanding and thinking deeper.

        One way Perry’s theory needs to be modified is that it needs to see students at different stages simultaneously depending on their content knowledge in a particular area. (Perhaps the theory already addresses this. I don’t know enough of it to know.) Students can be trained in on discipline up until the point of reaching the final stage, but because development requires critical thinking and critical thinking is not something that we apply equally to all areas, especially when we don’t know enough to do so, they still may be mired in equivalencies. That’s why politicians, who are often lawyers trained at the best law schools out there and who should be among our strongest critical thinkers, get it so wrong, so often. Congress is full of generalists who think they can make policy like specialists based on the advice of an expert who comes and answers their questions for two hours.

        That’s why Socrates first lesson is one of humility. Knowing what you don’t know is the first step. The liberal arts have taught this lesson for centuries, but perhaps we do need a reminder of what this looks like to students who have few examples of strong critical thinkers in the media and who are taught to consider grades like capital, currency to buy a better future for oneself. So perhaps what you propose is too idealistic, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be a cornerstone of the college experience.

      • 9 Tim
        September 6, 2013 at 9:30 am

        Your course/training for 1st-years sounds awesome. I wish I’d had it myself.

        > challenge them to think more deeply by exposing them to contradiction

        (^^ Do you mind sharing some specifics on how you go about doing that?)

        That’s a great point about how the models that the kids see are often lame — supposed leaders bloviating and equivocating, and the systems around them implicitly encouraging grade-grinding, not deep learning and change.

        One implicit aspect of all this is the large role of fear. People are afraid of looking dumb, of looking weak, of looking like they don’t know what they’re doing. They retreat into their comfort zones, instinctively transmute their fear into aggression and other defenses. It takes real strength and faith in your core to be able to honestly accept opposing or simply different views, especially when they are perceived as personally threatening.

        One simple tack I’m taking to get at some of this with my children these days is: many things are not what they appear to be on the surface. In particular, what looks like strength is often weakness, and what looks like weakness is often strength.

        I like the humility angle of what you’re teaching. In addition to the knowing-you-don’t-know aspect, humility in practice means really accepting and even celebrating the state of being “wrong”. You, me, and everybody else are going to be a little off, or wildly off… a *LOT*. Experts, professors, famous authors, industry titans, whoever. Sure, in some areas, a given person will have a bunch of experience and have a lot of ready answers and strong instincts for validity that they’ve already honed over the years — but just shift the frame away from the handful of subjects they’re deep into, and suddenly they’re wrong left and right, just like everybody else. Whether in your area of expertise or not, there’s no escaping the dynamic hustle to assemble your best-effort truths amid the myriad confusions of reality.

        The good news is that all of this is a-ok! It’s the essence of how we figure things out, individually and as a species.

        Having the courage to be wrong a lot is how you have a chance to really get things right.

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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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