“according to Gladwell’s own logic, why should we believe anything Gladwell says?”

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].

FIRST OFFICER: Of course.

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: ?… ???… ???… (???) [eh… really… sleepy… (unintelligible words)]

FIRST OFFICER: ??? [Of course]

FIRST OFFICER: ?? ? ??? ??? [Captain, Guam condition is no good]

FIRST OFFICER: Two nine eighty-six

CAPTAIN: ?! ?? ?? ?? [Uh, it rains a lot]

CAPTAIN: (unintelligible words)

CAPTAIN: ??? ???? ? 20 ?? ??? [Request twenty miles deviation later on]

FIRST OFFICER: ? [yes]

CAPTAIN: … ????? ???? [… to the left as we are descending]

(UNCLEAR SPEAKER): (chuckling, unintelligible words)

FIRST OFFICER: ? ?? ???? ? ??. [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.

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