Dispute over rock dating settled out of court

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San Diego

An Earth scientist from Columbia University in New York has settled a lawsuit filed against him last year by a geographer in Tempe, Arizona.

The dispute between Wallace Broecker, a professor of Earth science at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Ronald Dorn of Arizona State University (ASU) began when Broecker co-authored an article in Science questioning Dorn's rock-dating techniques.

Three weeks ago, Broecker and his university made a confidential settlement with Dorn. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed, but sources say it is between $30,000 and $70,000.

Declining to discuss the case, Broecker issued a brief statement: “[We] have resolved the litigation and have agreed that any scientific disagreements . . . should be debated in the scientific arena and not addressed through litigation.” Neither Dorn nor his Phoenix-based attorney would comment.

In June 1999, Dorn sued Broecker and his co-authors from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff and a Swiss institute for defamation, intentionally causing emotional distress and intentional interference with his work.

Dorn's lawsuit against the remaining scientists is continuing in state court in Phoenix. The defendants are expected to seek its dismissal.

The lawsuit was based on an article that claimed that Dorn's samples of rock varnish appeared to contain bits of coal and charcoal, which when combined could distort radio-carbon tests (Science 280, 2132–2139; 1998). Dorn's technique involved scraping varnish off rocks, treating it and then submitting the samples for radio-carbon dating.

A complaint about Dorn's rock-dating procedures was also made to the National Science Foundation (NSF), which had funded some of his work. The NSF investigation was closed after an ASU inquiry cleared Dorn in September 1999 of fabricating data in published articles (see Nature 401, 629; 1999).

Dorn continues to work at ASU, where he is part of a team of 20 scientists seeking funding for information-technology studies associated with ASU's NSF-funded Long-Term Ecological Research Project.

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