Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Alyson Cole

Committee Members

Leonard Feldman

Serene Khader

Subject Categories

Environmental Studies | Philosophy of Science | Political Theory | Women's Studies


feminist science studies, environmental political thought, climate change


What space is there for critical approaches to science in a context where the authority of science to say anything meaningful, or to prescribe, appears to be somewhat tenuous—in other words, in a moment of rampant climate change denial? To answer this question against the backdrop of the common refrain that the problem is one of capitalism vs. the climate (e.g. Naomi Klein 2014), I examine cases where debates about science, economistic organizational arrangements, and political clashes between neoliberals and environmentalists come together, while insisting on the view, following critical engagements with the sciences, that the sciences and their societies co-produce one another. I ask, what visions for the future are bundled in our debates about climate science? In response to such queries, I argue in this dissertation that recourse to a traditional positivist understanding of science leads us to irresolvable conundrums in the context of environmental concerns and in the clash with capitalism.

As I demonstrate throughout the dissertation, political neoliberalism wields the armor of science strategically—it cloaks market fundamentalism and its attendant values within it, thus redrawing the discursive terms of engagement around ideology rather than knowledge. Center-left liberals (encapsulated by mainstream climate science and Democratic party politics, who often also have a hand in fostering structural neoliberalism) in turn insist on the strengthening of scientific authority in response to this attack. I argue that the attachment to neutrality, reason, and objectivity as ways to secure scientific authority not only in some ways legitimates the political neoliberal strategy, but also preempts a truly critical, imaginative position – a response that takes as its core objective the end of exploitation of human and nature alike. As I show, we need feminist engagements with science in order to refuse the neoliberal terms of engagement, and crucially to offer new grounds with which to “move on” in politics/knowledge.

In particular, the first chapter examines how the structural neoliberal arrangement of the academy—increased disciplinarity and the dominance of behavioralism—influenced the study of politics. Smuggled into this rubric for knowledge production are the values of mid-twentieth century anti-communist fervor, namely an ideological commitment to the specific type of freedom that the “free market” ostensibly secures. Given the critique of capitalism embedded in the anthropogenic climate change thesis, I argue that an updated version of Sheldon Wolin’s articulation of the imaginative vision in political theorizing—one that takes seriously the feminist, anti-racist, postcolonial critiques of vision and of science—is both the purview of environmental political thought, and a necessary rubric for it to harness that which is required for a broader, richer, more capacious imagining of the possibilities for the ordering of collective life. Specifically, I read Wolin’s account of imaginative vision alongside Donna Haraway’s critical feminist account of vision as a cautionary note to environmental political theorists against deference to scientific knowledge.

In order to address the other modes of neoliberalism at work in contestations over the authority of science on questions of the environment—the attendant political rationalities, their affects and intensities—I look to two different cases where political neoliberalism infuses climate change denial. The second chapter asks whether it is the case that climate change denial can be explained as a function of ignorance about science. Given that white evangelicals in the United States are the demographic most likely to report high rates of climate change denial, I turn to philosophical work on epistemologies of ignorance in order to examine the epistemic practices of the prominent evangelical community leaders who advocate this view. I demonstrate that the success of the evangelical strategy lies in its redrawing of the terms of discourse and debate, positioning itself as guardian of the interests of “real science,” and of grounding both of these moves in the preservation of the evangelical way of life.

The third chapter examines the recurrent phenomena in the 20th century where a prominent environmentalist/scientist engaged in a public debate with a political neoliberal critic on the subject of whether they had in some way corrupted scientific practice. Turning to critiques on the same grounds of feminist philosophers of science, I argue that the insistence on the importance of separating ideology from science in climate change debates cloaks the historically contingent formations and meanings of reason and objectivity in the guise of neutrality. A return to feminist arguments that the body, values, and connectedness are required to give better accounts of the world reveals the limitation of this debate constrained by structural neoliberal rationality and frustrated by political neoliberal maneuvering. I also argue that environmental science and feminist philosophy are important political/methodological bedfellows. To the extent that the Anthropocene reconfigures the boundary between human and nature, we should also view it as an invitation to re-examine our diagnostic tools.

Taken together, these chapters articulate the multiple registers and modalities in which norms and concepts of science permeate our political debates and our ways of organizing collective life. In the conclusion, I turn explicitly to the concept of imagination, where I argue that a critical orientation toward neutrality points us toward feminist futures. In particular, I turn to science fiction to argue for broad and adventurous reading practices, playfulness with our tools for inquiry, and insistence on reclaiming the discursive terms of debate.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Sunday, May 30, 2021

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