In "Errand of Mercy," after being on Organia for a short time, Spock tells Captain Kirk that their information was incorrect. The civilization was not just primitive, but utterly stagnant. He states that his tricorder says that "for tens of thousands of years, there has been absolutely no advancement."

How can a tricorder possibly know this? It would not only have to know the civilization's status "tens of thousands of years ago," but also be completely certain that at no point there was advancement (only to be reversed somehow).

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    Because: a) it's Spock and b) it's the power of the plot, simple! – Rebel-Scum Jul 22 '18 at 16:33
  • Minute changes in background radiation and calculate a timeline? Knowledge of the situation "tens of thousands of years ago" and compare it to now? – ggdx Jul 22 '18 at 16:51
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    It was Spock's deduction based on Tricorder readings of current situation. – Captain Cold Jul 22 '18 at 17:26
  • @Wasp The only problem I have with this is that it doesn't allow for progress that had occurred, say, 1888 years prior. If this progress had been reversed somehow, Spock's tricorder presumably wouldn't have known any differently. – Ham Sandwich Jul 22 '18 at 23:15
  • Perhaps archaeological evidence, e.g., stonework from tens of thousands of years ago of the same technological level as the modern buildings. – Harry Johnston Jul 22 '18 at 23:34

Although the Federation haven't been around for thousands of years, they have records of Organia going back at least that amount of time, presumably purchased or acquired from older cultures in the region. Despite the Organians having been recorded as 'pre-industrial' 10,000 years ago, Spock's tricorder isn't picking up any energy signatures or evidence of a culture that's advanced beyond what records indicate was their starting position thousands of years previously.

In the distance, something that looked like a ruined castle or fortress, old and decayed, but massive, glowered over the village-an odd construction for a culture that was supposed to have no history of warfare. As for the passersby, they paid no attention to the two starship officers, as if they were used to seeing men beaming down every day. That too seemed rather unlikely.

Star Trek 2: Errand of Mercy - Official Novelisation


Spock lowered his tricorder. “Absolutely no energy output anywhere,” he murmured to the Captain. Kirk nodded; the report only confirmed his own impression. This was not a medieval culture making progress toward mechanization, as the original reports had indicated. It was totally stagnant-a laboratory specimen of an arrested culture. Most peculiar.

Star Trek 2: Errand of Mercy - Official Novelisation


In The Voyage Home, Spock estimated the Bounty's date of arrival at Earth by measuring the atmospheric concentrations of artificial compounds:

"Judging by the pollution content of the atmosphere, I believe we have arrived in the latter half of the Twentieth Century."

On Organia, Spock could have scanned for pollutants with long chemical and/or radioactive half-lives, using a technique similar to radiometric dating in the real world. If he found no traces of long-lived pollutants, then he could confidently say that the industrial processes that could have produced them had not been in operation on the planet for a very long time, if ever.

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    The novelisation indicates that he's scanning for "energy". – Valorum Jul 23 '18 at 6:10
  • This is good, but I think in STIV he would have been measuring against historical records, or at least his own knowledge of Earth history. No such reference material for Organia. – Conrad Bennish Jr Jul 24 '18 at 0:29
  • In the same episode, Spock distinguishes between odds of 7,824 to 1 versus 7,824.7 to 1, so I'm sure he's thorough. – Gaultheria Jul 24 '18 at 0:46

This is supposition, not canon that I can back up, but:

Surely a device like a tricorder would be able to date substances, using carbon dating or more likely some more advanced version thereof. All Spock would need to do is analyse and date structures, to find that the oldest ones (presumably thousands of years old) are the same technological level as the newest ones.

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