We loved the story in Saturday's Arizona Republic about Robert Trombley, the volcano "expert" who runs a research center out of his Apache Junction trailer.
It was the kind of story we wished we'd broken: A pull-back-the-curtain expose on a dude getting national attention because of his self-described status as a master scientist. As the Repub's Lindsey Collum notes prominently in the story's first half, news outlets sought experts to talk about an Iceland volcano that halted many European air flights in April, but didn't check Trombley's history. Turns out his degrees came from the proverbial Cracker Jack box.
But Collum -- or perhaps an editor -- buried the most ironic part of the story near the end:
The Republic ran a profile of Trombley's center in 2006 but did not ask for an expert opinion.
In other words, the Arizona Republic was one of the first to be duped.
Naturally, the embarrassed Republic doesn't link to that "profile," (though it does link to Trombley's Web site), so we threw down a few bucks for an archived version.
The 2006 article, by former Republic writer Lars Jacoby, makes it clear that Saturday's article could have been spun in a much more self-deprecating manner. After tearing the Wall Street Journal and CNN new ones for treating Trombley like a real volcanologist, Collum writes:
Pay a visit to Trombley's research center, however, and the story of Arizona's volcano expert turns into a cautionary tale about how the media's push for instant news coverage can sometimes lead to experts with questionable credentials.
The International Volcano Research Centre is located in Trombley's home, a pink trailer in Apache Junction.
Collum could have written, just as accurately: Pay a visit to the Republic's archives, however, and the story of Arizona's volcano expert turns into a cautionary tale about how the media's push for crappy, "hyper-local" coverage can sometimes lead to experts with questionable credentials -- even if there's plenty of time to check out the details.
Jacoby's February 6, 2006, article is entitled, "Volcanologist in AJ is an Eruption Pro."
Apache Junction readers who glanced at the story probably saw it for a lemon from the lousy lead sentence:
Robert Trombley's cat, Magma (molten rock), is appropriately named if you consider his owner has maps of volcanoes in far away places decorating the walls of his Apache Junction home, which doubles as headquarters of the Southwest Volcano Research Centre.
Those who read on found out that "the center's prediction rate of eruption is above 94 percent thanks to the computer program he designed, Eruption Pro 10.6, which takes into account factors including past eruptions, sulfur dioxide emissions and sunspots."
Hmm, sunspots? Really?
But, as the Saturday article notes, the Republic's staff "did not ask for an expert opinion." It's not a one-source story, though -- Jacoby does quote from a 17-year-old who was working for Trombley:
"[Trombley] is very intelligent in math and science," she said.
The 2006 article then lists the very credentials it destroyed on Saturday:
Education: Doctorate in astronomy from the University of Dallas,1974; law degree, LaSalle University, Chicago, 1973.Bachelor's, Lawrence Institute of Technology, Southfield, Mich., 1965. Post-doctorate work in relativistic and particle physics at UCLA, and advanced physical geology and paleogeology with the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
According to Collum, Trombley's doctorate came from a "diploma mill;" his law degree, from an at-home study course.
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Jacoby, now a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, says he dimly remembers interviewing Trombley. He'd just got back from vacation and hadn't heard about Collum's expose, so he didn't have much to say about it, he says.