Boll Weevil Eradication: A Lesson for the 21st Century

Comedian Bill Cosby once said that the U.S. Civil Rights movement was as much an act of intellect as it was of raw courage and sheer physical will.


I was thinking about this several days ago writing about a newly published history of boll weevil eradication in Alabama by Dr. Ron Smith, a retired Extension entomologist and Auburn University emeritus professor of entomology.

Anyone who doubts the indispensable role Cooperative Extension played in eradicating the weevil should take the time to read it.  This voracious pest represented not only the greatest single challenge to Cooperative Extension but also played a critical role in our movement’s formation.   And, much like the U.S. Civil Rights movement, eradication was every bit as much an act of intellect as it was of raw courage and will. Interestingly, it also involved the efforts of black and white scientists and agents, a foreshadowing of the changes that would follow civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

Equally significant, it affirmed the Cooperative Extension model like no other single event in our almost century-old history, demonstrating how scientific research could be brought to bear on a problem and then disseminated to the people who had critical need of it. Yes, it took roughly 70 years for this effort to play out fully, but the South is a better place because of it.  And it was not only the eradication of the pest itself that brought long-term benefits   Final victory over the weevil was preceded by agricultural diversification, the widespread adoption of entomological science in Southern agriculture, and spillover effects into other scientific disciplines and technologies.

I believe there is a lesson for Extension professionals in the 21st century.  Our early 20th century Extension predecessors lived in an era when Americans still maintained an enduring respect for progress — the role science and technology could play in making their lives better.

On the other hand, we live in an era when faith in science has been eroded by many of the technological advances that have followed in its wake.  Immense advances in communications technology, for example, have led to an astonishing diversification of media through which all types of messages, including scientific and technical knowledge, are communicated.  One immediate effect has been an informational overload whereby valid scientific and technical knowledge is crowded out by junk science — an effect that, along with other factors, has bred a loss of faith in science.  One unfortunate consequence is that science and technology are often viewed as root causes of, rather than solutions to, many of our society’s most pressing problems.

Our role, as Extension professionals, is to constitute a vanguard of sorts — to restore Americans’ flagging faith in scientific progress.  But we operate on entirely different terrain compared to our predecessors a century ago.  Unlike our early 20th century forebears, we constitute only one voice among many, many others. But, much like our early 20th century forebears, gaining our footing and learning how to project this voice in the most effective way possible, will require a combination of intellect, courage and sheer willpower.

The challenge awaits us.

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