Take the horrific 6th July Asiana airplane crash in San Francisco. Such occurrences, though rare, are not without precedent. To avoid expounding on past crashes, I – and general media – will refer the reader to a pre-collected list in bestselling book Outliers by popular theorist-slash-journalist Malcolm Gladwell.
I read Outliers a year ago and found it interesting and well-researched: two prized qualities in a good read. This was my introduction to the writings of New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell. He argues:
“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.” [Salon, emphasis mine]
Admittedly, I did not remember at all the chapter on Korean airplane crashes and likewise failed to link Asiana’s accident to Gladwell or Outliers until stumbling across a recent post on Ask A Korean! (AAK!).
The author debunks Gladwell’s theory by steadily dissecting the chapter claiming that: “Gladwell carefully stacks the deck in favor of case by introducing ultimately irrelevant facts, and omitting potentially relevant facts.” One would do well to read it in full; his final dramatic comment is uncomfortably poignant:
“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.”
Gladwell first refuses original credit for the theory connecting culturalism to avian crashes, then continues point-by-point until he has addressed most of the major charges leveled against his book. The AAK! author, feeling that too many questions are left unanswered, responds in kind.
I post this not to idly share an unresolved debate, to question the research of a respected journalist, or even to exonerate one party over the other. Rather I return to the original point about culturalism.
It is easy to generalize a culture by the actions of a few and through limited, though repeated, observations. In fact, I believe this is something we do in regards to our own cultures.
While not entirely convinced by Gladwell’s argument on culture and aviation, I found the subsequent quibbling between him and AAK! interesting, intelligent, and considerate at the very least. Moreover, I find the Gladwell-AAK! exchange to be a heartwarming display of open-sourced communication and academia.
As any number of respected minds have famously quoted, and which these posts corroborate, critical thought and constructive dialogue are key to progress.
A free press is a wonderful thing.