Calibration, Coherence, and Consilience in Radiometric Measures of Geologic Time

Philosophy of Science (forthcoming)
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In 2012 the Geological Time Scale, which sets the temporal framework for studying the timing and tempo of all major geological, biological, and climatic events in Earth's history, had one-quarter of all its boundaries moved in a prima facie puzzling, widespread revision of radiometric dates. In this paper I show how recent work in the philosophy of metrology can help us understand this episode, and in turn how a careful consideration of this case elucidates the distinct, but related, notions of calibration, coherence, and consilience. In particular, I argue that coherence testing should be recognized as a distinct activity that precedes both calibration and consilience arguments, and I highlight the tradeoffs scientists often face between intercalibrating two measurement methods or keeping them independent for arguments of consilience. Finally, I show how the iterative nature of calibration leads to the problem of legacy data, which has been inadequately appreciated.
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