Conservative Deviance Detection, CRISPR Cures Muscular Dystrophy, and Virtual Reality Ethics

A scitech research and policy roundup



Do misshapen or imperfect geometric figures seem deviant to you? If so, you may be a political conservative. This is the finding of psychologists from the University of Queensland published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. From the abstract:

We propose that political differences in social policy support may be partly driven by the tendency for conservatives to show greater sensitivity to deviance than liberals, even among targets lacking social or functional relevance. In 3 studies, participants were shown geometric figures and were asked to identify the extent to which they were "triangles" (or circles, squares, etc.). More conservative participants reported greater differentiation between perfect and imperfect shapes than more liberal participants, indicating greater sensitivity to deviance. Moreover, shape differentiation partly accounted for the relationship between political ideology and social policy, partially mediating the link between conservatism and harsher punishment of wrongdoers (Studies 1 and 4), less support for public aid for disadvantaged groups (Study 2), and less financial backing for policies that benefit marginalized groups in society (Study 3). This effect was specific to policies that targeted deviant groups (Study 3) and who were not too highly deviant (Study 4). Results suggest that, in addition to commonly cited affective and motivational reactions to deviant actors, political differences in social policy may also be driven by conservatives' greater cognitive propensity to distinguish deviance.

So stare at the shapes below for a while. Do the imperfections make you want to marginalize some group or other? Keep in mind that research last summer reported that more than half of psychological studies could not be replicated.

Imperfect Shapes

On the biomedical front, researchers at Duke University have used the fantastic new gene-editing technique CRISPR to successfully treat a genetic disease in adult mammals. In this case the mammals were mice who had the genetic defect that causes the murine equivalent of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The reseachers used a viral vector to deliver the CRISPR gene-editing package to muscles to repair the defective gene. As Medical News Today reports:

The team worked with a mouse model that has a particularly debilitating mutation in the gene that codes for dystrophin. They programmed the new CRISPR/Cas9 system to snip out the dysfunctional part of the gene, leaving the body's natural DNA repair system to stitch the gene back together again.

The new gene was shorter, but functional, note the researchers, who suggest that because the method they used simply removes the dysfunctional part of the gene rather than replacing it, this strategy could be effective in a larger proportion of Duchenne patients.

As a first step, the team delivered the therapy directly to the leg muscle of an adult mouse. This restored production of functional dystrophin and increased muscle strength.

They then injected the CRISPR/Cas9 and AAV combination into a mouse's bloodstream to reach every muscle. This restored muscle function throughout the body—including the heart—an important result since heart failure is often what kills people with Duchenne.

The researchers will test the new CRISPR enabled technique in larger mammals with the goal of getting treatments to human patients. I predict that CRISPR treatments will succeed faster and make to patients much sooner than many now think.

In an article in today's Wall Street Journal, researchers are considering the physical and ethical side effects of virtual reality on users. One issue is that there could be mismatch between on what the user is seeing and their bodily sensations—a car chase scene—so that they experience nausea. But another concern is just how frighteningly realistic can scenes be before they cross an ethical line? The article opens with this anecdote:

Software worker Erin Bell inched across a wooden plank suspended over a deep, rusted pit. When a Stanford University researcher asked her to step off, she wouldn't do it.

In reality Ms. Bell was walking on a carpet with a virtual-reality headset strapped to her face. "I knew I was in a virtual environment," she said later, "but I was still afraid."

The psychological impact of lifelike virtual experiences is just one of the challenges for virtual reality, a technology that might finally have its commercial moment in 2016—after decades of hype. …

"We shouldn't fathom this as a media experience; we should fathom it as an experience," said Prof. Bailenson, who also co-founded Strivr Labs Inc., which helps football players relive practice in virtual reality. …

"We do have to have ethics conversations," but "the technology will be successful no matter what," said Mike Rothenberg, head of Rothenberg Ventures, which has invested in more than 30 virtual-reality startups. "Every technology has downsides; the only question is how do we handle it as a society."

Of course, the right way to deal with uncomfortable VR experiences is for users to take responsibility for avoiding them. Since I sometimes tear up at sentimental automobile commercials and would never consider seeing the Hateful 8, that would include me.