1/23/09

How to Defend Science Education in Your State

FFRF BillboardImage via WikipediaScience education continues to come under attack in many states by creationists and their misinformed allies. Those of us in the reality-based community must remain committed to defending reason and promoting quality education in all fields. Fortunately, grassroots activism can be effective in reaching our elected officials and influencing public attitudes. Drawing on the recent example of Mississippi's HB 25, a measure that would require the board of education to affix anti-evolution disclaimers to science textbooks, I would like to provide this brief how-to guide for promoting activist efforts in the face of ignorance.

After learning of HB 25, we at Mississippi Atheists wrote a post to bring the issue to the attention of our readers and simultaneously informed members of the Mississippi Atheists group at Atheist Nexus. Through these actions, we estimate that roughly 100 people, mostly residents of our state, learned about the bill, what it would do to science education, and most importantly, what they could do about it.

Next, a couple of our authors used Meetup.com groups to spread the word among a wider circle of Mississippians. This sparked word-of-mouth communication in virtually every corner of our state. As word spread locally, a handful of bloggers outside our state picked up the story and informed their readers. This is a critical benefit of the blogosphere: compelling stories spread like wildfire.

Our focus at this point was in encouraging two specific actions: (1) writing letters to elected officials on the legislative committees considering the bill, and (2) writing letters to the editors of local newspapers to influence public opinion. Follow-up posts were designed to give readers multiple examples of both.

We also contacted the National Center for Science Education and Freedom From Religion Foundation to make sure they knew what was happening in our state. American Atheists even issued an action alert.

By this point, several letters had been sent to state representatives, and at least a couple letters to the editor had been published in nearly every paper in the state. The outpouring of support and willingness to engage in effective activism was truly astounding. We then received word that our efforts were having an impact and that the bill was expected to die in committee.

The status of HB 25 in Mississippi is uncertain, but we expect the bill will not make it out of committee. Best of all, I think we will be better prepared to tackle the next assault on science education that comes our way.

Here are some recommendations for organizing similar activist efforts to defend reality-based education in your state:
  1. Increase awareness. Use blog and forum posts to raise awareness among likely stakeholders. In these posts, be sure to address both what is at stake and what readers can do about it. Provide links for more information, and offer specific suggestions about who to contact, etc. Use relevant Meetup.com groups to inform others in your state. E-mail the story to some of the big blogs for whom such a story might be relevant.
  2. Promote action. As you are working to increase awareness, you want to simultaneously offer specific suggestions for what readers can do. Recognize that many of those learning about the issue may not have participated in previous activist efforts like this. Write follow-up posts in which you give specific examples of letters to elected officials, letters to the editor of local newspapers, etc.
  3. Enlist support from the heavy-hitters. For activism around science education, contact the National Center for Science Education. For issues that also raise church-state issues, consider the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The idea is to make sure some of the advocacy groups that have attorneys at their disposal know what is going on.
  4. Share any responses. Nothing reinforces activists quite like hearing that they are making a difference. Be sure to share any responses received from the decision-makers being contacted.
  5. Be patient but persistent. Even after being told that a letter I wrote to the editor of my local newspaper would be printed, it did not appear for more than a week. Not every letter will be published, and not every elected official will respond. Stick with it.
Everyone is capable of this sort of activism. While it can be time-consuming, it is for the benefit of our society and is certainly worthwhile.