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?