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Eschaton 2012: for those that haven’t drank the Kool-aid

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It appears that Armageddon is all around us. Whether it’s movies about the end of the world, fantasy novels by Christian fundamentalists on the apocalypse or the popular expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” that stems from the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, it seems we can’t help but think about the end of time.

So what is a modern, science-loving, rational-thinking person to make of this apocalyptic buzz? Why, attend a conference for rational skeptics at a Best Western Hotel in downtown Ottawa.

“We know that there are many myths and ideas about the end of the world,” says Darren McKee, who is involved with the Eschaton 2012 conference that begins on Friday and runs until Sunday.

“The most recent is the Mayan idea that the world is going to end in 2012. On closer inspection this is not true because it’s simply a (Mayan) way of organizing calendars.”

McKee is referring to the popular myth that the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012. In reality, this year simply marks the end of the Mayan calendar.

The desire to use rational thought to test popular myths lies at the heart of the conference, which will take place at the Victoria Park Suites (Best Western PLUS) at 377 O’Connor Street.

The three-day gathering will bring together scientists, philosophers, academics and other rational thinkers to discuss such topics as godless ethics, atheism, evolution and climate change. There will even be a secular sing-along on Sunday. (Click here to see the schedule).

The conference name is a fun use of the word eschaton, which refers to the end of time following Armageddon. For McKee and his fellow conference participants, the gathering is a great opportunity to meet other rational skeptics.

“(Skepticism) is the idea of using reason and evidence in your daily life and how you deal with the world,” says McKee.

He is quick to point out, however, that skeptics are not conspiracy theorists.  To be clear: This is not a group of crazies with tinfoil hats who believe the moon landing was faked, that evolution is false or that flu shots are a government plot. Rather, they are rational thinkers who use science and logic to test everyday held beliefs.

As a case in point, McKee hosts a weekly podcast called The Reality Check that has between 4,000 to 5,000 regular listeners. Earlier this month the show celebrated a milestone when it reached one million downloads.

When I asked McKee to describe the podcast, he said it was like Myth Busters but without the explosions, referring to the popular science-related show on the Discovery Channel.

The podcast, which will broadcast live during the conference, examines popular beliefs. Past topics include if humans really use only 10 per cent of their brain (not true), whether ostriches really put their head in the sand (false), and whether hand-free phone devices are safe to use while driving (they are not as safe as many think).

As for the conference, McKee says it will provide an accessible venue for the public to discuss a wide range of issues.

Among the highlights is a special gala talk on Saturday evening by Paul Zachary “P.Z.” Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota Morris. Myers presentation is titled Chance in Evolution and will be held at the Museum of Nature, the sole event outside of the conference hotel site.

The intellectual discussions, however, won’t take away from having a good time.

“It’s fun,” McKee says about the conference. “We are not just serious people. There will be some social events on Saturday and Sunday evening that people can attend.”

The conference takes place between November 30 and December 2Tickets are $25 for Friday evening, $50 for the Saturday Gala at the Museum of Nature, $150 for a Saturday pass and $150 for Sunday only. There are also discounts for students and low-income people who are willing to volunteer. For the full conference, tickets cost $275 until November 29 and then $300 afterwards. Budget tickets for the full conference that don’t include food or drinks can be purchased for $150.

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