Fun with fallacies 12: The Red Herring

redherringI was going to save this fallacy for later, but in writing the pieces on some other fallacies, I found myself wanting to reference this fallacy so it got expedited in my posting schedule. The Red Herring is a relevance fallacy and thus falls into the same class as straw man arguments. Now unlike the straw-man that is based on misrepresenting your opponents argument. The red herring is ultimately a distraction tactic to draw an audience away from the arguments being made.

As a general rule, the red herring will tend to lead an audience towards plausible but ultimately false conclusions that are not relevant to the topic at hand.

Example:

Participant 1: We need more focus on the suicide epidemic among men and boys, and we also need to focus on men’s health to look for reasons for the “life expectancy gap” between men and women.

Participant 2: I agree with participant 1 about the focus, but it is important that we remain focused on the rape culture as we are in a time where women are under attack.

As you can see from participant 2’s argument, it is not a response to the argument made by participant 1, as the second part of the sentence distracts away from the primary argument made by participant 1.

To write out participant 2’s response in a more clear manner:

“I agree with you, however I disagree with you completely now look at my issue”

Unfortunately, I have no good techniques to respond to red herrings except being brutal in following the red thread of the discourse and steering the debate by staying in control. This can be done by either:

A) Introducing your own red herrings to bring the debate back to the focus you want.

B) Ignore that the red herring took place, and what came of it.

C) Pointing out that the person is shifting the focus of the debate away from the topic (provided there is a defined topic for the debate).

There is also a second form of red herring that I’ve frequently seen politicians use that I refer to as the digressional red herring, where a politician will knowingly switch the subject with digressions a few times to draw focus away from the central topic.

Example:

On the subject of gun control, I think it is important to bear in mind the second amendment rights that our founding fathers built into the constitution. Our founding fathers were wise men, and their legislation has held up remarkably well, I remember when my father first read the constitution to myself and my sister by the campfire at our roaring fire at our cabin by the Lake in North Dakota. This is why family values are central to this country, by having strong and secure families, we can prosper and regain our competitive advantage in exports.

As you can see from the above text, the politician switched topic from the second amendment, to the founding fathers, to family, to family values and finally to the economy.

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2 comments on “Fun with fallacies 12: The Red Herring

  1. […] like the previous straw man fallacy, accusations of cherry picking are often used as red herrings in debate. If you wonder if someone is guilty of cherry picking, ask the following question: […]

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  2. […] is attacking the person rather than the argument. Secondly, it could be argued as a Red Herring in that it draws attention away from a potential non-defensible argument or position held by the […]

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