Oddballs, freaks and garden gnomes

Eccentrics David Weeks & Jamie James Weidenfeld & Nicolson £17.99
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The Independent Culture
Spike Milligan is almost certainly one. So is Jimmy Savile. Lucinda Lambton probably is, but I'm not at all convinced about Screaming Lord Sutch and I suspect that Magnus Pike was not one at all. There is more to being an eccentric than simply doing odd things, wearing curious clothes and waving your arms a lot.

When David Weeks, a neuro-psychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, embarked on what he describes as "a systematic study of eccentricity", his motives were as noble as a sociological researcher's can be. Eccentricity was a topic curiously ignored by science, yet bearing a promise of vast, untapped resources of individualism and creativity. So he placed advertisements in pubs, wine bars, libraries and launderettes in Edinburgh with the invitation: "Eccentric? If you feel that you might be, contact Dr David Weeks."

The ads led to radio and television interviews, which led to more responses. The success of this technique even led to a new item in the dictionary of sociobabble - "multimedia survey sampling" - and that's where things start to become unconvincing.

Writing of his decision to advertise for subjects, Dr Weeks says: "It presented the problem of self-selection: the volunteer would be deciding for himself, at least initially, if he was eccentric." He then adds, almost apologetically: "Yet there did seem to be a logical fail-safe built into the method, for would there not be something eccentric about any person who answered an advertisement soliciting eccentrics?"

The respondents certainly were an unusual bunch. We meet a Devonshire woman with a collection of 7,500 garden gnomes, a Chippewa Indian from Minnesota who walks everywhere backwards (it makes him feel younger and is good for arthritis), a Connecticut woman who never throws anything away, and an inventor who welded three bathtubs together to celebrate the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Eccentrics, the study tells us, tend to have extreme scores on "personality measures", to exhibit unusual modes of speech, to be non-conformists and to be generally of a creative disposition. In short, they're oddballs. But did Dr Weeks's method really give him the people he was looking for?

At its purest level, eccentricity involves a level of non-conformity that does not even recognise the concept of conforming. The true eccentric is someone with so little concern for normal values that he doesn't realise he is odd.

"Every time another story about the study was reported," write Weeks and James, "we would get a flurry of calls from eccentrics who were intrigued by what we were doing."

Not real eccentrics. They wouldn't give a damn what you were doing. And that basic methodological error permeates the whole book. "We soon learned," they say, "that, while eccentrics rarely seek to draw attention to themselves, contrary to conventional wisdom most of them are eager to share their ideas with others."

Not quite. It's people who reply to ads in pubs who are eager to share their ideas with others. One cannot disagree, however, when they say: "An exploratory investigation in any field can exclude no potential subject at the outset, on any grounds whatsoever." But that's exactly what your multimedia survey sampling has done - it's excluded all the genuine eccentrics who have no interest in other people's research.

There's a fair amount of amusing material in this book, on oddities living and dead, but it is largely anecdotal in nature and the constant use of the word "eccentrics" to describe the sample is misleading. As most of the results confirm, the volunteers for this study are not characteristic of eccentricity. Instead, they represent a good cross-section of the "Hey look at me, I'm eccentric" crowd.

If a proper study of eccentrics were possible, it would probably reveal a hierarchy of curiousness. Below the true, noble eccentric comes the eccentric, second-class, who cultivates eccentricity as a means of avoiding social responsibility. The eccentric, third-class, is probably not truly eccentric at all, but has cultivated a specialist oddity in order to enhance earnings or simply enjoy an easy life. Then we have the grown-up autistics (who probably include Einstein and Wittgenstein), and sufferers from Asperger's syndrome (who probably include most train-spotters), and a ragbag of obsessive- compulsives.

With a methodology best designed to scoop up the lower reaches of this hierarchy, this book does not describe eccentricity. It is primarily a study of exhibitionism.