In Praise of Excellence?

Except that the vast majority of people not only don’t praise excellence; they don’t even recognize it. They only think they do. This is to a greater or lesser extent in all fields, even in science.

In 1912 the German geologist Alfred Wegener proposed the idea of continental drift, now called plate tectonics, and he was ridiculed by the scientific community. It wasn’t until more than 20 years after his death in 1930 that his ideas gained credibility, and are now accepted by that same science community. It goes the other way as well. When he died in office in 1923, President Warren Harding was beloved and respected. The revelations and scandals that followed showed his ineptitude and the corruption of his administration, including the infamous Teapot Dome scandal in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall received substantial bribes to secretly lease a Naval Oil Reserve to private oil companies for nominal rates.

Study after study has shown that taller men are thought to be more competent and that they’re paid more than shorter men. The same studies show that there’s absolutely no correlation between height and performance, yet people consistently praise and reward taller men consistently more than shorter men.

I’ve seen the same thing in writing. Readers praise what is popular, and few seem to realize that popularity and excellence are not synonymous. On the other side, I’ve seen academicians and critics praise tedious and obscure prose as excellent because they apparently believe that complexity per se equates to excellence. Certainly, the World Science Fiction awards (the Hugos) have become, if they always weren’t, a popularity contest among attendees of the convention.

My wife, who is a professor of music, opera director, and performer, sees the same thing among music lovers. When she’s explained why a particular piece of music is excellent, she’s often gotten the reaction of, “I know what’s good,” from people who have virtually no background in music. They know what they like, and that’s what they think is good.

This is a close to universal human trait. When most people say that they praise excellence, what most of them are praising is at best the appearance of excellence. What they praise is charisma, presentation, appearance, or whatever else appeals to their tastes, biases, and preconceptions.

Paradoxically, that trait may also explain the popularity of sports. Charisma doesn’t make you faster if you’re running track or a competitive swimmer. It doesn’t score points if you’re a football or basketball player. Being tall helps, but it doesn’t make you a better tennis player or basketball player. For all the faults, and there are many, in amateur and professional sports, excellence is largely decided on performance, unlike in government, politics, and business, where a minimal level of competence and a maximum level of appearance and charisma will get most people further than maximum ability combined with merely average levels of charisma and appearance.

So… think about it when you’re judging people… or art, writing, music, or any number of things. Are you judging the actual excellence, or the appeal to you?

7 Responses to “In Praise of Excellence?”

  1. Daze says:

    I think there is a particular problem (at least for me) in distinguishing between good ideas and good writing. If a (particularly SFF) story has good ideas and an interesting plot I tend to finish the first read-through really quickly, and think ‘that was excellent’. Then I read it again, and when I’m no longer turning the pages at 3am to see what happens next, I start to see the plot holes or leaps and pieces of clunky writing.

    Case in point; ‘Divergent’. Like a lot of YA stuff, it’s a rollicking read at first pass, with some neat ideas and careers along from event to event – and, as an aside, first-person narratives allow some big plot holes to pass by the first because you just think ‘well she wouldn’t have know about that’. Then you read it again – or see the movie, which can’t moves to third-person and pulls you more dramatically up against the ‘why the hell would that trick work more than once’ question – and it starts the big drop from ‘excellent’ towards ‘twaddle’.

  2. JakeB says:

    Another example is Semmelweiss’s discovery of the importance of washing hands between examining patients. The unwillingness of the medical establishment to accept empirical findings condemned thousands of women to death from childbed fever until sterile practice finally became common many years later.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    …and not all doctors in Pasteur’s time were aware of his discoveries.

    One problem is with defining excellence. Some songs are performed in different genres, and each genre will have certain expectations. Some elements of the definition might be common to all singing, but others will be relative to the expectations of the genre. Even those with the technical mastery of the most demanding standards may have difficulty adapting to other genres, unless they also have deep understanding.

    But with sciences at least (and perhaps arts too), there’s also the component of being willing to break with custom at least to the point of carefully _testing_ new ideas. How many times has it been mistakenly said that we know all the basics now, and the rest is just details? Having supposedly learned from history seldom prevents that particular presumption.

  4. mikor says:

    Well, there are more or less objective criteria for excellence in sports, financial management, or medicine. But in art or entertainment, I have a problem seeing the difference between appeal and excellence.

    • That’s part of the problem. Too many people can’t tell if a singer is on pitch and on rhythm,or whether a sentence is well-constructed, and whether an artist has any sense of proportion, perspective, and any real technical expertise, and if someone who knows these things says anything, they’re often the ones who are criticized. Expertise, even in the arts, is not a matter of opinion. Personal taste is.

  5. Brian K says:

    ‘Expert Objectivity vs. ‘Subjective Appeal’

    “Are you judging the actual excellence, or the appeal to you?”

    In regard to music it is appeal. At first glance. I have no formal training to judge excellence in a general technical sense; not in the way a music and/or voice professor can. For a listener, like me, music and its enjoyment is the most subjective of entertainments. I am the final arbiter of what I like and don’t like. I judge appeal and excellence upon my emotional and physical response to music; different from the technical criteria that a recognized expert would use I expect. Therefore, the line between excellence and appeal blurs since the two equate for me and me alone. Taste, appeal, and excellence are one and the same. But, I don’t claim to speak for anyone else but myself; and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert for others.

    I tend to adhere to a pared down version of the Pythagorean Theory of Music to understand why people enjoy certain genres of music and not others. Music is sound and sounds are vibrations. The listener, too, is vibratory in nature. Each of us has our own unique vibratory signature. I’ve found that when these two sets of vibrations interact one of three reactions generally occur: discord (dislike), neutrality, or harmony (like). No expert analysis of the excellence of notes on a page and their perfect performance will change the lack of appeal if they only inspire discord. I have sought out the opinion of an expert but it ultimately comes down to my personal decision based on what is right for me.

    What drives people strive to become experts in a particular area of study or work? At first, on the basis of some personal appeal, individuals make subjective decisions when they choose their areas of study. The appeal can be ego, financial gain, personal fulfillment, to help others, a sense of discovery etc. Whatever the appeals in their numerous combinations and permutations, subjective choice lays at the heart. Note the reaction of experts when others fail to share that subjective appeal. It can be somewhat unfortunate in scope and tone if not downright banal. So, too, can the reaction of listeners who take any criticism of their favourites personally. Support or condemnation of the music I like doesn’t change the fact that I like it. So if an expert shouts at the top of their lungs from their ivory tower and I’m not there to hear, do they make a sound?

    “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” (Mark Jansen)

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