Logical Fallacy 7: The Red Herring

A Red Herring is a diversionary tactic. It is an argument brought up in response to another argument which does not address the real issue. There are many types of Red Herring arguments. Sometimes this can be a deliberate attempt to divert the argument and other times it might be done in ignorance. Usually this is an appeal to emotion as well.

The term comes from fox hunting. They used smoked red herrings dragged across the path of the fox to distract the hounds from the fox's trail.

This is Part 7  in a series about Logical Fallacies. We are going through one fallacy at a time. There are many types of fallacious arguments. I'm going to try to explain them with examples then find ways to help you refute those arguments when they occur. Please comment or email if there's a particular fallacy you want me to tackle, or if you have success with refuting an argument using a good technique you can share.

Types of Red Herring Fallacies: (from Wikipedia's list)

  • Ad hominem: attacking the personal instead of the argument.
  • Argumentum ad baculum: Appeal to Force, Appeal to the Stick: threats or coercion towards the opposing party.
  • Argumentum ad populum: Appeal to the Majority, Appeal to the People: It's true simply because so many people believe it.
  • Association Fallacy: guilt by association
  • Appeal to Authority: It's true because the person asserting it is in a position of authority.
  • Appeal to Emotion: An argument is made to manipulate the emotions instead of valid reasoning.
    • Appeal to Consequences: It's true or false based on whether the premise leads to either good or bad consequences for someone.
    • Appeal to Fear: An argument is made to increase fear or prejudice towards the opposition.
    • Wishful Thinking: A decision is made based on an what would be pleasant to imagine, rather than evidence or reason.
    • Appeal to Spite: An argument is made to exploit peoples' bitterness or spite towards the opposition.
    • Appeal to Flattery: An argument is made using flattery to gather support.

  • Appeal to Motive: A premise is dismissed by calling into question the motives of the proposer.
  • Appeal to Novelty: A proposal is superior or better simply because it's new or modern.
  • Appeal to Poverty: Argumentum ad lazarum: The conclusion is correct because the speaker is poor, or incorrect because the speaker is wealthy.
  • Appeal to Wealth: Argumentum ad crumenam: A statement is coreect because the speaker is rich, or incorrect because the speaker is poor.
  • Argument from Silence: Argumentum ex silentio: A conclusion is based on silence or lack of contrary evidence.
  • Appeal to Tradition: It's correct because it has a long standing tradition behind it.
  • Chronological Snobbery: It's wrong because the idea was held when something else, clearly false, was also commonly held.
  • Genetic Fallacy: A conclusion is based solely on someone's or something's origin rather than its current meaning or context. Typically transfers positive or negative esteem from the earlier context, instead of finding difference in the present situation.
  • Judgmental Language: Insulting, compromising, or disparaging language used to influence the recipient's judgment.
  • Poisoning the Well: Adverse information is given about the target pre-emptively to the audience, to discredit or ridicule everything the target person is about to say.
  • Sentimental Fallacy: It would be more pleasant if, therefore it ought to be, therefore it is.
  • Straw Man Argument: Misrepresentation of an opponent's position.
  • Style Over Substance: Emphasizing the way an argument is presented while ignoring or marginalizing the content of the argument.
  • Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: Information that has no relationship is interpreted or manipulated until it appears to have meaning.
  • Two Wrongs Make a Right: It's assumed that if one wrong is committed, another wrong will cancel it out.
  • Tu quoque: You Too: You justify your wrong action because someone else does it.

First, I'm having trouble coming up with examples. My husband Butch and I played Pente this evening and it took us forever to think up 3 examples for you while we were playing. So, after this logical fallacy, I'm turning the tables back on you and you will get to help me! :D But for now, here are our lame examples:
  • Jim comes home over an hour late. Sally says, "I was worried. Why are you late? Why didn't you call?" Jim replies, "Have you seen the weather lately?" He doesn't answer her directly. He brings up a whole separate issue meant to distract her from finding out the truth, which is that he's a cheating SOB who is sleeping with his boss's secretary. See, it doesn't have anything to do with the weather, but poor Sally didn't check so she just drops the subject, even though deep down, she knows something is wrong. Sigh... if only her best friend Jill would tell her the truth. See, Jill knows Jim is a creep because Jill works at the same office for a different boss. But Jill wants to stay out of it because she's married to Bob, whom she stole from Sally back in college! So she knows that relationship issues are really sensitive with poor Sally, who has never forgiven her. Because Bob is quite a catch and Jim is a jerk! Oh.. where did THAT come from!? LOL
  • Butch says, "The new Alpha Romeo is coming to the U.S." and Neece says, "Yeah, but what about the Smart Car? I hear it gets great gas mileage." Neece hates the new Alpha Romeo (okay, that's not true, I don't know a thing about it) but she secretly (ok, it's not a secret, I really do want one and Butch knows it) wants Butch to buy her a Smart Car, so she plays the Red Herring, distracting Butch from his train of thought onto a similar path which is what she's interested in, the Smart Car.
    • NOTE: if you can make the scent of your red herring similar to the original argument, it's much easier to trick your opponent onto the new path you want them to follow. So be aware of that!

  • At Thanksgiving dinner Butch says, "There are no gods." while passing the mashed potatoes to a bible thumper (his aunt's mother - she's a fundamentalist methodist of some sort). She turns beat red and shouts, "Yeah? Well how do you explain the human SOUL? Only GOD can give the spark of life!" Everyone at the table groans awkwardly as Butch goes into a lecture on science and evidence, and the bible thumper turns purple and starts throwing mashed potatoes at him while screaming bible verses. Ah, another festive holiday with Butch's family! LOL
Wow, sorry, I have no idea where that dreck came from, LOL! In the future, you can help me with examples in the comments. I'm sure they will come to all of us much more easily than to me, alone, in the middle of the night!

Ok! So how do you refute a Red Herring Fallacy? Good question. Since there are so many, we need to come up with a general rebuttal that we can use. Then when we deal with each of the specific types of arguments, we can find more direct counter measures.

First, identify that someone has whipped out a stinky red herring argument. I think the first plan of attack is always to catch the fallacy and tell the person that you've caught it. So, you could say, "That's a red herring. Stick to the argument at hand." In other words, direct the person back to the original argument with a verbal correction. This might be a good time to remind them of what the original argument or question is.

In our first example, Sally wants to know why Jim didn't at least call to let her know he'd be late. He starts talking about the weather. Sally needs to redirect the conversation back to the original argument and ignore the red herring. "Never mind the weather, please answer the question, Jim. Why didn't you at least call and let me know you were going to be so late?" Now, of course, Jim will have to quickly come up with a lie and apologize. It's not the ideal situation, but at least Sally didn't get derailed by talk of the weather!

In the second example, Butch would reply to Neece's Smart car red herring with, "I know you want a Smart Car and I will buy you one for your birthday. But I am talking about the  Alpha Romeo. I wanted to tell you about it because I think you'll really love it. It's got... yadda yadda yadda.. numbers, boring stats on engine size and suspension configuration or other such nonsense... blah blah blah.."

Anyway, I think the idea here is to identify the Red Herring then restate the original argument or question to get back on track.

Ok, obviously I'm trying to have fun with this. Here's your homework. If you think of any red herring examples that you've had cross your path, or if you have a great way to get things back on track once a Red Herring is thrown out in an argument, please comment! Together we can come up with better examples and solutions than I can come up with alone.

For this lesson, I’m using 2 resources:

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