Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most famous popular science writers in the world. That doesn’t mean he gets everything right.
Once, in an interview, Gladwell claimed
that culture of origin is “” in determining if a plane crashes. The chapter heavily focuses on Korean culture, and the 1997 crash of a Korean Air flight. Gladwell argues that it was caused in part by the respect for hierarchy inherent in Korean culture, and the indirect nature of the Korean language.
Gladwell’s theory is that the plane’s first officer and engineer noticed an issue some time before the crash, but since they communicated indirectly to a tired captain, he didn’t notice. And because the first officer wasn’t willing enough to take control in the six seconds prior to the crash when he finally spoke up directly, disaster wasn’t averted.
Because the pilot of the crashed Asiana flight was Korean, the theory’s been dredged up again.
The whole argument is problematic, and the example Gladwell uses, particularly so. of Gladwell on the “Ask A Korean” blog is worth reading, but here are some of the highlights.
Gladwell neglects to mention that the captain and first officer were more than a decade younger than the engineer. Korean culture puts a strong emphasis on respect for age, meaning there’s no way the two superior officers would treat the engineer the way Gladwell implies.
Additionally, the first officer and engineer , and graduated from a far more prestigious academy than the captain. The captain only outranked the others because he had jumped to the private sector earlier, and wouldn’t have dismissed or disrespected their opinion.
As for Gladwell’s thesis that Korean isn’t direct enough to communicate effectively in a disaster, Gladwell apparently in a way that makes the first officer seem far more indecisive and indirect than he actually was.