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Blog

An ethnic theory for plane crashes

By Joao Medeiros

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell (Courtesy; Brooke Williams)

Malcolm Gladwell, the virtuoso author of Tipping Point (which covered the work of physicists like Duncan Watts and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Blink, came to London for one day to present his new book, Outliers, to a packed audience at the Lyceum Theatre.

Gladwell is a maverick science journalist (or what “maverick” used to mean pre-Sarah Palin). He invented “pop economics” with his writing, spawning a whole new class of books like Freakonomics, The Long Tail, Here Comes Everybody, …. He works for the New Yorker, where he regularly writes about his niche subject: everything.

Gladwell is not a typical science journalist. He’s an original observer (not necessarily an original thinker — he defines himself as a communicator of science) that is driven by his own curiosity rather than following the agenda of scientists. Whereas most science journalists browse the scientific literature in search for the “what’s hot in science”, Gladwell follows his own instinct and curiosity. He starts his stories by asking by asking very simple questions about pretty much anything that crosses his way: “What is Cesar Milan ( from the TV show “The dog whisperer”) secret?”, “Why is there only one variety of Ketchup?”, “Why do we usually relate genius to precocity?”, etc etc These are questions that most people probably dismiss as random daydreaming divagations.

Gladwell is also a master storyteller. Any writer can recognise Gladwell’s ideas as extremely powerful versions of the magic “What if…?” which forms the basis for any story (In Gladwell’s version is a simple “Why…?”) He then strictly follows the golden rule: “Show, don’t tell”. Whatever commonsensical knowledge he talks about, it is displayed as a skillfully spun yarn, short story after short story in a sequence that incrementally cements a core message. Of course, anecdotal evidence is not sufficient proof for whatever theory you are selling your audience. But ultimately this is about persuasion and any audience buys an engaging story.

His books are clever: they tell you the obvious, but they tell it under the sophisticated combination of scientific theory and narrative. They induce the reader into a temporary “suspension of belief” that makes him reconsider and renew his own assumptions of common sense. At the end, what we believed to be already true from the beginning, is renewed and reinvigorated under Gladwell’s narrative grip. It works a lot like the best self-help literature. In fact, it is not hard to superficially interpret books like Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Sucess as really scientific self-help books. (His features for the New Yorker however, regularly also display a much wider and perhaps relevant role in tackling information-rich, analysis-dependent conundrums such as Enron, the American Health Care system, pop culture, etc. — the sheer variety of his journalistic interest is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies)

At the Lyceum, Malcolm Gladwell told a variety of stories related to the role of culture and ethnicity in preventing plane crashes — which in itself forms a subsection of his book about how success is dependent upon cultural background. Not only did he tackle a deeply controversial issue (why a pilot’s ethnicity influences how likely he or she is to crash) with an astuteness (another magnificient example of how science can be used to fight the political correctness epidemic) but he also gripped an audience throughout one and a half hours with just a microphone and no powerpoint.

We need more Gladwells in journalism.

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6 comments

  1. Julio Herrera

    “…why a pilot’s ethnicity influences how likely he or she is to crash…”
    If this were true, it would be interesting to find out how to prevent this. It would also be important to determine if something similar could be said about nuclear reactor accidents.

  2. Peter Johnson

    I recently read a brilliant book that talked about the phenomenon of plane crashes, in particular the KLM/Pan Am collision in 1977 in Tenerife, which killed about 600 people. The book approaches the problem from a different angle – not national culture, but the power difference between the boss and subordinate, in this case the KLM captain and the flight engineer. Since KLM is from a western culture (Holland) that is not hierarchical, it seems that the real problem lies not in national culture, but in the boss-subordinate power equation. The book, “Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator”, is an insightful read; there’s a free ‘manifesto’ of the book available at http://www.changethis.com/19.BossDictator

  3. Will Davis

    Probably several things at work here. All control towers use english. It’s the language of the air. Less than perfect english could (and has) resulted in problems. Then you have the boss/subordinate problem in some cultures. Add in shoddy aircraft maintenance and training in poorer countries. This would incluse the former Soviet Union that has a terrible safety record.

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