Chapter 7, "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," opens with an account of Korean Air flight 801. The flight was meant to take a route from Seoul to Guam and was piloted, mostly without incident, by an experienced captain. Upon approaching the destination, the captain (who was familiar with the Guam route) decided to make a visual approach. Yet the plane never reached the airport; instead, it crashed into the side of a mountain and killed the majority of the 254 people on board.
Gladwell then reports the poor flight safety record of Korean Air, which at one point stood at seventeen times more crashes per million departures than an American airline. By the late 1990s, the airline's terrible reputation had resulted in safety rating downgrades and criticism from the Korean president. However, the situation sharply improved after 1999. For Gladwell, this final fact suggests that Korean Air's problems were rooted in a modifiable behavior, one dictated by a cultural legacy.
Airplane crashes are seldom the results of sudden catastrophes or malfunctions; rather, they are generally the products of individually minor errors and problems (typically seven) that build upon one another. These problems lead to catastrophe when pilots, co-pilots, and engineers fail to offer communication and criticism to one another. This is the process that resulted in another famous airplane crash, the 1990 Avianca accident, which involved a plane flying from Colombia to New York. Yet good pilots know how to avoid such potential for catastrophe: often simply by communicating actively and consistently. Gladwell puts forward the example of Sure Rattwatte, a veteran pilot and behavior researcher who makes a point of interacting with subordinates during flights, and of making sure that they call attention to his lapses and mistakes.
The Korean Air and Avianca pilots, however, failed because they took the exact opposite of Rattwatte's communicative approach. Gladwell uses cockpit transcripts to show how the Caviedes and Klotz, the Avianca captain and first officer (respectively), refrained from making critical or even assertive statements. Such a deferential attitude also makes it difficult for pilots to communicate with brash air traffic control employees. The roots of such an attitude, however, are cultural: according to Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, some nationalities exhibit a natural aversion to challenging authority, known as a high Power Distance Index (PDI). Combined with unusual tolerance for ambiguity and an emphasis on politeness, a high PDI can lead to poor functioning in high-stakes situations.
Gladwell, having set out this information, is able to explain exactly how Korean Air righted itself. The airline brought in a Delta Air Lines official named David Greenberg; at Greenberg's insistence, English skills were aggressively promoted within Korean Air. Greenberg thus gave the pilots the chance to become fluent in an international language that (unlike Korean) does not include a gradated system of modes of address and is thus better suited for blunt communication. Korean Air was thus equipped to avoid incidents comparable to the Guam disaster, which is depicted once again at the end of "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes."
Chapter 8, "Rice Paddies and Math Tests," opens with a depiction of the Chinese countryside and an explanation of the rice farming industry. Rice is grown in paddies, agricultural constructions that are small in size but require careful monitoring and coordination. Those who cultivate rice must be well aware of how rice is fertilized, must choose among different varieties of rice to plant, must maintain specific water levels, and must coordinate a single, quick harvest. Rice, as Gladwell points out, was for centuries fundamental to the Chinese diet and economy.
Gladwell then considers another aspect of Chinese culture: its number system. In sharp contrast to English, Chinese features single-syllable numbers (which are easier to remember) and a regularized system for translating two-digit numbers into words (which gives a superior impression of logic and order). For reasons such as these, Chinese-speaking students find learning mathematics less confusing and alienating than English-speaking students do. Yet the culture of rice paddies, Gladwell argues, may also help to explain Asian proficiency in mathematics.
A typical rice paddy is roughly as large as a hotel room, but (again) requires constant attention for the best possible crop yield. Other modes of food production require much less work. Western agriculture, for instance, involves large plots of land, advances in technology, and (traditionally) long periods of rest; hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung bushmen also work relatively little. In contrast, rice farmers must consistently engage in work that is demanding and, by Gladwell's definition, meaningful.
In addition, the attitude of determination that mathematics requires can be linked to Chinese peasant proverbs, which stress the rewards of hard work. (One of these, which is the basis of the chapter's subtitle, states that nobody who can rise before dawn three-hundred-sixty days per year fails to make his family rich.) However, a concept of mathematical excellence based on inquiry and persistence is by no means confined to the Chinese. Gladwell also offers the example of math professor Alan Schoenfeld, who observed a woman named Renee as she experimented with mathematics software. Renee was by no means an expert math student, but her perseverance in figuring out how the software transformed mathematical relationships indicated the ideal attitude for mathematical achievement.
Gladwell concludes his discussion by considering the TIMSS exam, an international math and science test. The TIMSS reveals an unusual correlation: students who complete more of the accompanying TIMSS questionnaire tend to score better on the TIMSS itself. This relationship breaks down country-by-country, with Asian nations consistently turning in the most complete questionnaires and the most exceptional scores. After all, the students of these nations, according to Gladwell, have been guided by a legacy of conscientious hard work.
In "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," Gladwell both returns to his earlier tactics and approaches radically new material for Outliers. Like other chapters, this one contains significant patches of narrative (some of which involve flight transcripts) and builds gradually towards an explanation. However, Gladwell now considers not simply failure, but failure of the most catastrophic possible kind. Where Chris Langan only hampered himself, the failed pilots in this chapter caused airlines to lose prestige and caused numerous passengers to lose their lives.
Gladwell realizes that, by inserting ethnicity into his theory of success, he is approaching a sensitive topic. As he asks at one point, "Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge?" (221.) There are a few possible answers. It is possible that 21st-century readers are naturally (and often rightly) suspicious of stereotypes, and that cultural "strengths and weaknesses" may seem like simplifications that border on stereotypes. It is also possible that such an idea of cultural "tendencies and predispositions" indicates an unsettling lack of freedom and choice in human psychology.
However, Gladwell uses the discussion in "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" to argue purposefully against the second of these two possibilities. After all, David Greenberg was able to completely re-vamp Korean Air simply by addressing the cultural weaknesses of the Korean language. Gladwell himself, moreover, indicates that deferential and elegant Korean dialogue (which can be disastrous when used by pilots) can be appropriate and pleasing outside of high-stakes scenarios. Context can determine whether a cultural trait is a strength or a weakness.
"Rice Paddies and Math Tests" also serves to address some of the perhaps unpleasant assumptions in "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes." Having shown how Korean culture may not be inherently well-suited to the airline industry, Gladwell shows how Asian culture at large is outstandingly well-suited to the pursuit of math and science. His discussion, here, recalls his discussion of the New York Jewish community: Asian culture similarly relies on the concept of meaningful work and similarly has built-in, almost accidental advantages. Jewish lawyers thrived because of a historical shift in the practice of corporate law; Chinese students can memorize numbers easily because Chinese numbers are logically constructed and consist of short syllables.
Yet Gladwell would probably not argue that mathematical determination is unique to Asian students. The example of Renee, for instance, can be understood as a sign that mathematical aptitude can be harnessed and taught, regardless of culture. Renee was not an expert math student, by any means. But her ability to learn persistence led Gladwell to a valuable idea: "Put a bunch of Renees in a classroom, and give them space and time to explore mathematics for themselves, and you could go a long way" (246). The theme of opportunity, which was Gladwell's focus earlier, returns to Outliers with renewed importance.