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Before going into the examples, here’s a definition of the fallacy…
The red herring fallacy occurs when someone deliberately introduces an irrelevant topic in a discussion, to divert the attention away from the main topic at hand.
Journalist: “Senator, is it true that the government has funded foreign entities that support and abate terrorism?”
Senator: “Whilst terrorism in this day and age is a threat, I believe that the pressing issue of our times is the need to alleviate world hunger. Mind you that since coming to office, my administration has helped provide basic necessities to many poverty-stricken regions in the world…”
Explanation: In this example, instead of addressing the question about the government funding terrorists, the senator introduces a red herring, that is, he highlights the contributions he has made since coming to office thus shifting the conversation.
Arguments which commit the red herring fallacy have the following structure:
Person A introduces Argument X
Person B presents Argument Y
Therefore, Argument X is abandoned.
Red Herrings & Fox Hunting…
In the past, trainers would use smoked herrings to train their dogs for fox hunting. First, they would drag a bunch of malodorous herrings over and across a fox’s path in the woods and then they would let the dogs loose. Whilst the scent of the red herrings would initially distract the dogs, over time, they were able to resist the temptation and stay on the fox’s trail.
Red Herring Fallacy Examples in Real Life
Son: “…but dad, how am I supposed to make a living with this salary?”
Father: “Consider yourself lucky, kid. When I was your age, I was paid a fraction of what you’re earning…!”
Tom: Cheating on your partner is immoral, why would you do such a thing?
Robert: “Well what do you mean by immoral exactly?
Tom: “It’s when you break certain values or principles that are shared by cultures.”
Robert: “Okay, but who creates these values or principles?
Explanation: In this example, Robert manages to divert the attention away from his unfaithfulness and onto a philosophical discussion about morality.
Red Herring Fallacy Examples in Politics
The use of red herrings is especially popular in political discussions. Here is an example of this fallacy in politics:
Reporter: “What would you do to ensure that more citizens get access to healthcare?”
Politician: “That’s a good question. There have been quite a few good developments that have unfolded in healthcare over the last few months like that recent bill which aims to increase funding for cancer research. It’s just like our foreign policies. I’ve made some great changes there too!”
Explanation: The politician deflects the main issue at hand and shifts the conversation towards foreign policy; a topic that he is more comfortable talking about.
How to Dispute Red Herring Arguments
Pay attention and listen attentively to what is being said. Someone who does sneak in a red herring during a conversation or argument will do so because they want to avoid engaging with the main topic.
If and when you do notice the red herring, let them know that their response, however entertaining or factual, is unrelated to the main premise of the argument.
Then, rephrase the question!
If on the other hand, you find yourself in a position where you yourself can’t think of an adequate response and are tempted to change the subject, then simply acknowledging that you need to think about the argument would be beneficial to both you and the opposition.