Leading article: Honours earned and omitted

This year's New Year's Honours list has many distinctly populist, and some curious, qualities. Though the mechanisms underlying the list remain something of a mystery, we knew that senior members of Britain's banking community were likely to be omitted – for obvious reasons.

That all Olympic gold medal-winning athletes will receive an honour is equally unsurprising, given that the Prime Minister assured us in August that they would. We do not yet know why this rule seems not to apply to Paralympians such as Nigel Murray, Dan Bentley, Zoe Robinson and David Smith – the gold-medal winning members of Britain's boccia team, who received no mention.

Some new ground has been broken, however, by the awarding of an MBE to the Paralympic gold medallist Eleanor Simmonds. At 14, she will become the youngest-ever MBE. At a time when young people are chided for their unhealthy lifestyles and "feral" behaviour, this recognition for a teenager is no bad thing.

Terry Pratchett's knighthood for services to literature is also welcome. Mr Pratchett, who sells more than 2.5 million books every year, has never been feted by Britain's literary establishment, despite delighting adults and children alike for more than two decades.

There is another reason why he might have been celebrated now. Twelve months have passed since Mr Pratchett announced that he suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. In that time, he has donated £700,000 to research its cure – an amount matched by his fans. He has given thought-provoking speeches raising the profile of this degenerative and terminal dementia, and provided frank insight into his experiences as a patient.

Alzheimer's afflicts as many people as cancer, yet the search for a cure receives just 3 per cent of the funding. Politicians have now taken notice. In November, the author met the Prime Minister and urged him to provide more research funds. In a period of personal adversity, Mr Pratchett has shown genuine courage. The knighthood for this modest man is an example of what our honours system should be about – and the best reason of all not to scrap it.