Is it an actual conspiracy, or just a theory about one? In episode 81, Tim Tangherlini from the University of California Berkeley’s Folklore Program discusses his research into how conspiracy theorists interpret and use what they believe is “hidden knowledge” to connect multiple human interactions that are otherwise unlinked … and how when one of these links is cut, they’re less able to hold together a coherent story about it. His open access article “An automated pipeline for the discovery of conspiracy and conspiracy theory narrative frameworks: Bridgegate, Pizzagate and storytelling on the web” which he published with Shadi Shahsavari, Behnam Shahbazi, Ehsan Ebrahimzadeh, and Vwani Roychowdhury on June 16, 2020 in the journal PLOS One



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Hosts / Producers

Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh

How to Cite

Watkins, R., Leigh, D., & R. Tangherlini, T.. (2020). Parsing Science – Picking Apart Conspiracy Theories. doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.12830939


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Tim Tangherlini: The conspiracy is deliberately hidden. And it’s embedded in this realm – this domain – of New Jersey politics, whereas Pizzagate only exists in narrative.

Doug Leigh: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Doug Leigh.

Ryan Watkins: And I’m Ryan Watkins. Today, in episode 81 of Parsing Science, we’ll talk with Tim Tangherlini from the University of Berkeley’s folklore program about his research into how conspiracy theorists interpret and use what they believe is “hidden knowledge” to connect multiple interactions that are otherwise unlinked. As well as his finding that when one of these links is cut, they’re less able to hold together a coherent story without it. Here’s Tim Tangherlini.

Tangherlini: Hi, I’m Tim Tangherlini. I’m a professor now at UC Berkeley, formerly a professor at UCLA. I spent [the] early parts of my childhood outside of Copenhagen in Denmark. So I grew up speaking Danish and in English. And when I got to college, I thought “I’ll major in geography.” So I wandered around for a little while, and discovered that Harvard in their infinite wisdom had closed their geography department at the end of the Second World War. So I thought, “Okay, well, I like computers. Maybe I’ll study some computer science.” So I walked around a little bit more and asked people for the computer science department, they said, “Well, no, we don’t actually have computer science. If you want to do that, you’d have to go down the river a little ways. We have applied math.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll do applied math.” And I started in on that. And at the time, I was taking a very interesting class in folklore and mythology … more of sort of like, you know, expanding my horizons. And so I decided – because we had to choose our majors at the end of freshman year – you know, “I’ll start off majoring in folklore and mythology and see where I can go with that.”

And it was pretty clear to me by the second year of doing this, that it was a very wide open major; [it’s] very strongly informed by sociology and anthropology, but would also allow me to study aspects of storytelling, which I found to be intriguing. And I thought, you know, I should probably explore this some more. So I got very lucky and was invited to be a graduate student at Berkeley, where I started studying Scandinavian folklore with a real emphasis on legend. And so it turned out that one of my advisors was really interested in trying to study stories at very large scale. And so I started taking advantage of some of my background in computation and in geography, and bringing it into the folklore, and started to devise statistical methods for both mapping the spread of certain motifs or topics in stories … either geographic correlations, or correlations to the class of storyteller: male storytellers versus female storytellers, storytellers from Western Denmark versus some of the islands, things like that. And that became the basis of my dissertation.

Leigh: It’s been said that behind every lie is a grain of truth. And this is also the case for most conspiracies as well, both for hoaxes as well as the actual secret plans between people to commit some nefarious act. And as a computational folklorist, Tim’s interest was in the sussing out of what patterns might exist between conspiracy theories as well as true conspiracies. So we started out our conversation by asking him to remind us what went down in the PizzaGate incident and how the conspiracy theory behind it emerged.

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