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What is The Red Herring Fallacy?
Before going into the examples, here’s a definition of the fallacy:
The red herring fallacy occurs when an individual deliberately introduces an irrelevant topic in a discussion, in an effort to divert the attention away from the main argument at hand.
The idea behind red herring arguments is that “I will prove you wrong, by changing the subject!”
The Logical Structure of this fallacy is as follows:
PERSON A introduces Argument X
PERSON B deflects or avoids Argument X, and presents Argument Y
Thereby, Argument X is abandoned.
Below are a few examples of the red herring fallacy…
Red Herring Fallacy Example in Real Life
The red herring is particularly pernicious in politics, here’s a textbook example of the fallacy in politics…
Richard: “The pressing issue of our time is that we need to collectively reduce our carbon footprint to stop global warming.”
Lisa: “Well I think that the most serious threat for our future generations is the potential risk of having nuclear weapons end up in the hands of rogue nations. We would be better off if more resources were allocated to address this matter.”
Explanation: In this example, Lisa invokes a red herring by failing to address Richard’s argument on global warming, as she introduces another topic -that is, of nuclear weapons.
Red Herring Fallacy Example in Politics
The red herring is particularly pernicious in politics, here’s an example…
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. Most notably, the recent bill that was passed which aims to increase funding for cancer research. It’s just like our foreign policies you know… I’ve made some great changes there too!”
Explanation: In this case, the politician deflects the main issue at hand which is healthcare. He then shifts the conversation towards foreign policy, something he is more comfortable talking about, a textbook example of the red herring fallacy!
Fox Hunting and Red Herrings …
A herring is a type of kipper fish, whose flesh turns red when it is smoked, giving it the name red herring.
A few hundred years ago, people would use smoked herrings to train dogs for fox hunting. What would happen was that before letting the dogs sniff out the fox’s scent trail, the trainers would drag a bunch of malodorous red herrings over and across the fox’s path.
The purpose of doing this was to distract the dogs. Over time though, the dogs were able to resist the temptation of the herrings and stay on the fox’s trail. Thus, the herrings were merely a distraction.
Red Herring Fallacy, More Real Life Examples …
Tom: Cheating on your partner is immoral, why would you do such a thing?
Robert: What do you mean by immoral?
Tom: It’s when you break certain values or principles shared by cultures.
Robert: But who creates these values or principles?
Explanation: Here, Robert has managed to divert the attention away from his unfaithfulness, and onto a philosophical discussion about morality.
Person A: Is it true that your organization accepted funds from entities that support and abate terrorism?
Person B: This organization has done a lot for the world, which includes things like promoting equal rights and providing basic necessities to many poverty-stricken regions in the world.
One more example of the red herring fallacy in everyday life…
Daughter: “But you promised me that I would be able to buy that Chanel Purse on my birthday!”
Mum: “Sweetheart, just take a moment to think about all the starving children in Africa. All of your problems will seem so trivial then.”
How To Dispute Fallacious 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 and are more excited about the one that they’re presenting.
If and when you do notice someone ‘Red Herring’ing,’ make it clear to them that their response, however entertaining or factual, is unrelated to the main premise of the argument. Then, rephrase the main topic or question.
If on the other hand, you find yourself in a position where you 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 before providing an adequate answer would be beneficial to both you and the opposition.
As the saying goes, a little truth goes a long way.