International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  19:00 - 20:30  /  Salle Marie Gérin-Lajoie
Remoteness, uncertainty, and natural instruments: The inferential structure of proxy records

Kimberly Brumble (Indiana University Bloomington, United States)

Historical sciences ranging from paleoclimatology to evolutionary biology to archeology rely on proxy records to “observe” or draw inferences about the past. Proxies are “natural instruments” that contain records of past geological and biological phenomena and patterns such as fossil records, ancient tree rings, or pollen captured in ice sheet bore holes. Among the set of proximate, or representative, systems used to make inferences about target systems, proxies have some unique inferential properties. Proxies do not rely on resemblance or representation of a target system as model organisms do. Instead, their epistemic connection to the target system is based on a historical causal story, and the record usually consists of a pattern that can be interpreted and measured. These characteristics allow them inferential reliability, even when latent properties between proxy and target system are posited or when the key structures of either are black boxed. The temporal and physical remoteness of the phenomena recorded by proxies results in additional challenges for characterizing uncertainty within the data. While proxy data share measurement uncertainty and data handling challenges with instrumental records, they also contain inherent uncertainties as a result of being the products of natural instruments (after all, no one was present to check recording conditions and such); all calibration must be done after the fact and by inferring qualities and sources of error and noise. For these reasons, uncertainty quantification and characterization are especially significant features of the inferential power and structure of scientific pursuits that rely on proxy data.