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Today's News: Swimsuit-Clad Women Underperform in Math Tests

Reading articles containing the phrase "studies show" makes us feel smart.

A headline at the Daily Mail blares: "Clothing has a significant effect on self-esteem and confidence."

"Students were more assured" when wearing Superman T-shirts than when not wearing Superman T-shirts, and women performed relatively poorly in math tests while wearing swimsuits during a study led by University of Hertfordshire psychology professor Karen Pine, who is quoted in the article:

"Research shows what we wear affects us. ... Putting on different clothes creates different thoughts and mental processes."

Pine's study, we are told, found that "wearing a white coat was found to improve a person’s mental agility. And ... when women are stressed, they neglect 90 per cent of their wardrobe."

Stop the presses!

It's trendy to frame news articles -- at women's websites, wellness websites, even celebrity websites -- around scientific studies. That's because readers love to feel smart. And for most of us, science is a rarefied realm peopled by geniuses who perform microsurgery and invent robots.

Even skimming anything that looks like data, even on our phones and even flanked by photographs of Olivia Wilde and Kanye West, makes most of us feel, even fleetingly, smart. Feeling smart feels good, which will keep us loyal to those websites, seeking the next feel-smart-feel-good jolt while keeping their unique-visitor stats sky-high.

Just reading the words "study," "percent," and "researchers" boosts the self-esteem. Take it from someone who reads such articles daily and has written dozens of them and is, how to put this, not a scientist. Take it from someone who, having just written a book about self-esteem -- Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself -- sees esteem-raising and -lowering triggers wherever they hide.

I respect scientists and science fiercely. They invented novocaine. But I would wager that the celebrity status of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, the Science Guy are based at least somewhat on our desire, as media consumers, to absorb their brilliance as if by osmosis, and thus to feel smart -- just as following Rihanna on Twitter makes some of those 35.6 million followers feel gorgeous by association.

(See? My lack of self-confidence made me insert "at least somewhat" while framing the previous sentence as a wager, not a fact.)

Reading about scientific studies really can make us smarter as we learn new terminology and discover whole fields of study and inquiry. We ponder possibility and causality. These are positive pursuits, stoking reasonable self-respect.

In studies-as-news reportage, a tipping-point sometimes comes at which feeling good morphs into feeling angry. This happens when the studies being presented aren't hard data but informal surveys conducted by private companies to serve their own mercenary purposes. Which brings us to the fashion section of the Telegraph, where a story bearing the headline "Body issues cause half of us to avoid the beach" asserts:

"A new study says that 53 per cent of us will say no to a beach holiday this year as we don't dare to bare in a bikini."

This new study was conducted by LoveLite, a London liposuction clinic. Still feel smart?

And sometimes the studies being presented are actual studies conducted by actual university-affiliated researchers, but their findings seem so obvious, so every-eighth-grader-knows-this, as to take us aback. Which finds us again at the Daily Mail:

"Women were ask to do a math test in a swimsuit or wearing a sweater, with the latter group performing better."

Hmm. Right now I'm not sure how smart I feel.

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