Category Archives: Education

High-tech conversion therapy undermines gay rights

Following the death of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who committed suicide after forced “conversion therapy,” President Barack Obama called for a nationwide ban on psychotherapy aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity. The administration argued that because conversion therapy causes substantial psychological harm to minors, it is neither medically nor ethically appropriate.

We fully agree with the President and believe that this is a step in the right direction. Of course, in addition to being unsafe as well as ethically unsound, current conversion therapy approaches aren’t actually effective at doing what they claim to do – changing sexual orientation.

Lady Gaga’s Born This Way includes sentiments supportive of the LGBTQ community.

But we also worry that this may be a short-term legislative solution to what is really a conceptual problem.

The question we ought to be asking is “what will happen if and when scientists do end up developing safe and effective technologies that can alter sexual orientation?”

Based on current scientific research, it is not unlikely that medical researchers – in the not-too-distant future – will know enough about the genetic, epigenetic, neurochemical and other brain-level factors that are involved in shaping sexual orientation that these variables could in fact be successfully modified.

And here is the important point. If such neuro-interventions are developed, they will have serious implications for a gay rights movement that is largely centered around a “born this way” response to discrimination – and the idea that sexual orientation isn’t something one can choose.

Where the science stands

With Oxford University colleagues Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg, one of us – Brian Earp – has proposed dividing potential neuro-interventions into sexual orientation into two categories.

On the one side, there are current and emerging technologies that could diminish (but not necessarily re-orient) same-sex love and desire. These would work by interfering with brain-level systems involved in lust, attraction and attachment that have evolved among mammals including humans. These could be called “anti-love biotechnologies.”

Today, most “anti-love” technologies work by regulating testosterone levels. Some target testosterone directly, such as anti-androgen drugs that are sometimes administered to sex offenders as a condition of parole, while others work more indirectly.

For example, a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), typically used as anti-depressants, can have the “side effect” of a diminished libido. Disturbingly, there are reports out of Israel of ultra-religious Jewish groups prescribing SSRIs to yeshiva students – not to treat depression, but to harness the “side effect” of a reduction in sex drive. The point in these cases is to chemically blunt any same-sex desires or even the urge to masturbate.

However, the effects of these drugs are global. That is, they have a dampening effect on one’s entire libido – whether one has homoerotic desires or otherwise – rather than blocking attraction to a specific person or group of people based on their outward sex-based appearance.

The more we learn about what’s going on in there, the more feasible it becomes to manipulate what’s going on in there.
Kenny Stoltz, CC BY-NC

On the other side, then, are what might be called “high-tech conversion therapies.” These are interventions that would change a person’s orientation from predominately same-sex attraction to predominately opposite-sex attraction – or, indeed, the other way around.

While these kinds of technologies are not currently available, based on the trajectory of scientific investigation, one of us has argued that “there is no good reason to think that such conversion may not one day be achievable.”

The upshot is this. All animal behavior — including human behavior — is at least in principle reducible to brain states. It then becomes a matter of figuring out which specific brain-based manipulations would work to alter the higher order drives and capacities that govern one’s sexual orientation.

We know that hormones and genetics play a large role in determining sexual desires. In 1991, Bailey and Pillard found that 52% of male identical twins compared to 22% of male non-identical twins had the same nonheterosexual orientations.

Hormonal studies have found that for many traits that differ between the sexes, gay men share similar characteristics with heterosexual women – including the index finger to ring finger length ratio and certain aspects of bone structure. These are characteristics that appear to be influenced by in utero exposure to androgens and other aspects of the amniotic environment.

The prenatal environment can have lasting implications for life.
Bonbon, CC BY

Of course, it is no small step to get from learning about how genes and prenatal exposures affect the development of a fetus’s later sexual desires, to determining how we can manipulate those desires in adolescents or adults. But as the ethicists Decamp and Buchanan have pointed out, it is important to “explore a range of possible issues, some of which may not arise, than to be overtaken by events owing to the failure to think ahead.”

So what does thinking ahead about high-tech conversion therapy tell us?

Put simply, the more we learn about the biological processes that underlie sexual orientation, the more likely it is that someone will figure out how to influence those processes directly.

I can’t change, even if I tried?

The advent of high-tech conversion therapy would be disastrous for the “born this way” gay rights movement.

This movement uses a variety of evidence, such as the twin studies mentioned above, as well as the inefficacy of Christian conversion camps, to argue that being gay is biological and – hence – unchangeable. If one is born gay, this argument runs, then one cannot change this fact anymore than one can change one’s height or skin color. This is an idea that has been movingly expressed in the chorus of a recent pop song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. As the singer says, “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.”

Same Love is another popular song supportive of all types of love.

This has become a lynchpin in the fight for gay rights. “Since I can’t change who I am,” many gay people have argued, “it isn’t fair to discriminate against me.” On this kind of view, sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic like race – a highly protected category. Yet if biotechnologies of the future do allow people to change their sexual orientations, then the gay rights movement would lose one of its central arguments.

So we think that better arguments are needed – and ones that are not dependent on the current state of technology. Surely, we don’t want to say that if sexual orientation could be changed, it would be therefore OK to discriminate against people who identify as gay!

There are two avenues of response worth considering. First, we can develop – and enforce – strict legal measures to prevent the (future) use of high-tech conversion therapies on children and other minors. As one of us has argued, “When it comes to protecting vulnerable children from the misuse of love- or sexuality-altering technologies, the strong arm of the law could go a long way” in reducing the potential for harm.

Second, we can take a closer look at our concepts about what it means to be gay in the first place, and ask whether being “born this way” is actually necessary to defend against discrimination.

Anti-gay discrimination typically takes a different form than what was once common around race.
shizzy0, CC BY

Changeability and discrimination

In a notorious interview recorded earlier this year, Ben Carson, a Republican physician (and possible 2016 presidential candidate), was asked if he thought that being gay is a choice. He answered, “absolutely,” with the implication being that this could be a reason for failing to extend marriage rights to homosexual couples.

Progressive commentators were outraged. In a typical line of response, they took issue with Carson’s empirical claim: being gay isn’t a choice, they insisted, often pointing to studies that seem to show a biological basis for sexual orientation.

But there are at least two problems with this kind of reaction. First, it mixes up “being gay” (which is a question of how one self-identifies, and therefore something about which individuals do have some measure of choice) with “having a same-sex sexual orientation” (in other words, being predominately or exclusively attracted to members of the same sex), only the latter of which is – currently – largely outside of one’s control. But why should we think that a person’s sexuality has to be unchangeable in the first place in order to serve as a basis for equal rights? The activist and author Dan Savage has pointed out the flaws in this line of thinking:

“[R]eligious conservatives knock on doors,” he writes, “distribute pamphlets, proselytize, and evangelize all over the country in an effort to get people to do what? To change their religions. To choose a different faith.” In other words:

[F]aith – religious belief – is not an immutable characteristic. You can change your faith. And yet religious belief is covered by civil rights laws and anti-discrimination statutes…. The only time you hear that a trait has to be immutable in order to qualify for civil rights protections is when [conservatives] talk about [being] gay.

How would the ability to change sexual orientation change what it means to be gay?
Flats!, CC BY-NC-SA

Choice and equality

Savage is right: if it’s unjust to discriminate against people because of their religious beliefs, which – while not necessarily immutable – are certainly central to many people’s sense of self as well as how they engage with the world, then it’s also unjust to discriminate against people because of their innermost sexual desires and orientation (whether these turn out to be immutable or not).

The lesson here is that “choice” is not the point. Whether you’re gay, straight, bisexual – or whether you reject such simplistic labels altogether – you should be free to form consensual relationships with whomsoever you please. And so long as the state is involved in regulating marriage, it should not be allowed to deny its citizens equal treatment before the law, whatever their orientation.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Why is it so difficult to think in Higher Dimensions?

Humans can only perceive three dimensional space but theoretical math works out just fine when manipulating objects in four or more spacial dimensions. Mathematicians, scientists and philosophers still debate whether higher spacial dimensions actually exist.

It’s hard to imagine higher dimensions. Even one additional spatial dimension is hard to see with your inner mind’s eye. If you want to imagine six, seven or eight spacial dimensions it isn’t just hard – no one’s even truly conceptualized hyperspace. It’s what makes the subject compelling but also what makes it frustrating to talk about. The examples theorists are able to use to help people “visualize” what can’t be seen must work within human limitations, and are thus second and third dimensional examples of a higher dimensional concept or object.

“Wait a second,” some of you are wondering, “Isn’t TIME the fourth dimension?”
This article is about spacial dimensions only. Personally, I agree with Amrit Sorli and Davide Fiscaletti’s work which I feel adequately proves that time is NOT a spacial dimension. If you want to debate this issue further, you can read my reasoning in my follow up piece, Time: fourth dimension or nah?, also available on

One of the most basic exercises in multidimensional theory is to imagine moving in a fourth. The distance between you and everything around you stays the same but in some fourth dimension you are moving. Most people can’t truly do this imagination game because there in nothing in our three spacial dimensions to compare the experience to.


In the famous book about spacial dimensions, Flatland, living, two-dimensional beings existed in a universe that was merely two dimensions.  A being with three dimensions, such as a sphere, would appear as a circle able to change circumference as it moved through a third dimension no one in flatland has ever conceptualized.

Humans evolved to notice changes in our three-dimensional environment, inheriting our ancestors ability to conceptualize space in three dimensions as a hardwired trait that actually stops us from conceptualizing other aspects of reality that might nonetheless  exist. Other people see hyperspace as a theoretical construct of mathematics that doesn’t describe anything in reality, pointing to the lack of evidence of other dimensions.

Tesseracts Predate Computer-assisted Modelling.

A Tesseract. Many people in the advanced math classrooms of my generation of high school students struggled to wrap their heads around tesseracts without moving diagrams. If a picture is worth a thousand words are we talking animated gifs and words used to describe three dimensional space or should we make up a new saying?

We are able to conceptualize three dimensions in the abstract when we watch TV, look at a painting, or play a video-game. Anytime we look at a screen we watch a two dimensional image from a point outside that dimension. Having an outside point of view for a three dimensional space could give us a way to artificially understand a higher spatial dimension. Until that time comes, we are sort of stuck explaining fourth dimensions by demonstrating how it would look on a two dimensional screen which we view from a third dimensional viewpoint.

It’s kind of like imagining “one million”; you can prove it mathematically to yourself, you can count to it and you know how valuable it is but you can’t truly picture one million of anything. Trying to explain this conceptualization problem with words is pretty tough because your brain is not equipped to handle it. Humans try to wrap their minds around it and dream up ways to explain hyperspace to each other anyways.

4D Rubix Puzzle

A rubix cube is particularly compelling as a multi-dimensional teaching tool, because it puts spacial dimensions in the abstract in the first place, and then gives the cube the ability to change the dimensional orientation of a third of it’s mass. It’s hard to wrap your head around a normal three dimensional rubix puzzle. By adding another dimension and using the same principle, one can ALMOST imagine that fourth spacial dimension. Most people can’t solve a three dimensional Rubix puzzle but if you think you are ready for the fourth dimension, you can download it and play it on your two dimensional screen, here: Magic Cube 4D

If you don’t think you’re ready to try and solve that puzzle but you want to know more you can watch this roughly 1/2 hour video about it:


While Miegakure is still under development, it’s set for release in 2015. Interactive games like this can spur collaborative thinking from a larger pool of collaborators – and make game developers tons of money.

If you want something a little less abstract than Rubix, check out this prototype for Miegakure, the surreal PlayStation 4 game that lets the user explore a four dimensionally capable world through three dimensional spaces that connect to each other through higher dimensions. It’s a great idea that makes everyone have the initial thought of wondering how the heck they coded it. Then the idea sinks in and you realize they wrote the code first and played with the visual manifestation as they went. It’s a great metaphor for the idea in the first place; begins as a concept rather than an observation. The essence of the argument against hyperspace actually existing is the lack of physical evidence. Unlike a ghost story or a spiritual, religious attempt to explain the supernatural, there is actually mathematical evidence that seems to make higher dimensions possible. It has logical evidence as opposed to empirical data. There are ways to observe without using human senses but it’s difficult to prove an observation of something the majority of humans have trouble even seeing with their mind’s eye, so to speak.

One day we might be able to use technology to increase our understanding of this abstract concept, and manipulate an entirely new kind of media. For now we are stuck with two and three dimensional visual aids and an mental block put in place by aeons of evolution.

 Read More about Hyperspace on!
Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Yeshiva University Launches Technology Certificate Programs

Yeshiva University on Monday announced the launch of four skills-based technology career certificate programs beginning May 11, 2015. The programs will provide remote, collaboration-driven courses, focused on software technology and data analytics&mdashcrucial areas of growing need in the marketplace. The certificates will be offered through YU Global, Yeshiva University”s online learning initiative, and can be completed… Continue reading