By Marian M. Jones, published on January 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
Hawks and sparrows must be feeling neglected these days, now that bird watching is taking a back seat to El Nino watching. "Although it won't quite reach the level that disco did El Nino is going to become a national craze," says Alabama psychiatrist Marc
Feldman, M.D. Feldman is only half joking. El Nino, the mass of warm Pacific Ocean water that is wreaking havoc with our weather, is rapidly becoming America's favorite scapegoat and sound bite. People are seeing El Nino's foot prints in every bout of severe weather to hit the U.S., and Newsweek has even run an "El Nino Watch" column. "You just shake your head and ask `Are they going to relate everything to El Nino?,"' one meteorologist told the Los Angeles Times.
The situation is compounded by people's tendency to believe strange weather occurs more often than it actually does. In a survey by University of Delaware researchers, 79 percent of respondents agreed that "the weather has been more variable and unpredictable lately"—even if local weather had been normal. Feldman, co-author of Stranger Than Fiction: When Our Minds Betray Us (American Psychiatric Press), believes the frenzy swirling around El Nino has some aspects of a mass hysteria. Although such hysterias arise from baseless beliefs—witness the Salem witch hunts—some times anxiety about a real phenomenon causes people to misattribute events or even physical ailments to it. In the early 1990s, parents in Kiev, Russia blamed fallout from the Chenobyl disaster for an outbreak of "radiation sickness" among school kids, but this "sickness" turned out to be a psychosomatic reaction to the parents' anxieties about radiation. "Nobody in my practice has attributed their physical symptoms to El Nino yet," says Feldman. "But I know it is going to occur. Blaming the weather offers a simple explanation for complex phenomena."