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Climate of the Past An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-2020-12
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-2020-12
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  02 Mar 2020

02 Mar 2020

Review status
A revised version of this preprint was accepted for the journal CP and is expected to appear here in due course.

Does a proxy measure up?: A framework to assess and convey proxy reliability

F. Garrett Boudinot1 and Joseph Wilson2 F. Garrett Boudinot and Joseph Wilson
  • 1Department of Geological Sciences and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, 80309, USA
  • 2Department of PhilosophyandCenter for the Study of Origins, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, 80309, USA

Abstract. Earth scientists describe a wide range of observational measurements as “proxy measurements”. By referring to such a vast body of measurements simply as “proxy”, workers dilute significant differences in the various ways that measurements relate to the phenomena they intend to describe. The limited language around these measurements makes it difficult for the non-specialist to assess the reliability and uncertainty of data generated from “proxy” measurements. Producers and reviewers of proxy data need a common framework for conveying proxy measurement methodology, uncertainty, and applicability for a given study.

We develop a functional distinction between different forms of measurement based on the different ways that their outputs (values, interpretations) relate to the phenomena they intend to describe (e.g., temperature). Paleothermometry measurements, which intend to represent the temperature of systems in Earth’s ancient past, are used as a case study to examine and apply this new functional proxy definition. We explore the historical development and application of two popular paleotemperature proxies, calcite δ18O and TEX86, to illustrate how different measurements relate to the phenomena they intend to describe. Both paleothermometers are vulnerable to causal factors that interfere with their relationship with temperature, but address those interfering causal factors in different ways. While the goal of proxy development is to fully identify, quantify, and calibrate to all confounding causal factors, the reality of proxy applications, especially for past systems, engenders unavoidable and potentially significant uncertainties. We propose a framework that allows researchers to be explicit about the limitations of their proxies, and identify steps for further development. This paper underscores the ongoing effort and continued need for critical examination of proxies throughout their development and application, particularly in Earth history, for reliable proxy interpretation.

F. Garrett Boudinot and Joseph Wilson

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F. Garrett Boudinot and Joseph Wilson

F. Garrett Boudinot and Joseph Wilson

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Latest update: 24 Sep 2020
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Short summary
We propose a framework that can guide the development, application, and interpretation of different forms of measurement. Using temperature measurements as a case study, we demonstrate the need for a distinction between different measurements based on their different uncertainties, and provide prescriptive language and measures that can aid researcher’s ability to assess data from different measurements. This framework can apply to a wide range of proxy measurements and fields of science.
We propose a framework that can guide the development, application, and interpretation of...
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