Airline pilot Patrick Smith on Malcolm Gladwell, interviewed at CNN:
CNN interviewer: Another fascinating finding is that you are more likely to be in a plane crash if the pilot comes from a particular country. What’s that all about?
Gladwell: Yes. That’s a fascinating thing. 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.
That is a reckless and untrue statement. There is nothing, statistically or empirically, to justify such a conclusion. Looking over the accidents from the past several years, I see crashes involving airplanes from Nigeria, Cyprus, Kenya, France, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand. Looking further into their various causes, I do see a pattern of pilot error, usually in response to technical failure or some other unusual situation, but the majority of fatal mistakes were strictly technical/operational.
A factor in a limited number of accidents? I can accept that. But “the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes”? That is totally absurd, and I am extremely disappointed that somebody as influential as Malcolm Gladwell said it. In addition to being incorrect, it encourages the widely held notion that non-Western airlines are by their nature less safe than those of North America and Europe — a mythology I’ve addressed many times in this column.
What all of this underscores is the difficulty of finding wholly reliable information when it comes to commercial air travel. Aviation is a strange and mysterious realm, steeped in secrecy and veiled by an almost impenetrable vernacular. It begs to be sensationalized. Any journalist who comes near it has a hard time coming away with information that is, for the lay reader, at once digestible, useful and accurate. Gladwell gets a lot of it right, but still I expect better from one of our most talented and meticulous reporters.
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