The red herring fallacy is a form of argumentation that relies on distraction. Red herring arguments present irrelevant information that diverts attention from the main topic of discussion.
Although red herring fallacies may result from faulty reasoning, they are often used purposely, with the intent of confusing or distracting the audience.
Red herring fallacy example In a pre-election press conference, a political candidate is questioned about allegations of financial impropriety. She responds by shifting the focus to her opponent’s harmful policies.
In this example, the candidate being questioned commits a red herring fallacy. Even if the accusations against her opponent are true, they’re irrelevant to the allegations against her. The accusations against the opposing party are likely to provoke anger and effectively change the topic of conversation so that many listeners will forget the original topic.
Red herrings are a type of informal logical fallacy in which attention is diverted from the main subject to confuse or mislead the audience.
As a rhetorical strategy, red herrings are considered a fallacious, or poorly reasoned, form of argumentation, whether the red herring is introduced in error or with deceptive intent.
The term “red herring” is also the name of a literary device. In mystery novels, a red herring is a misleading clue or character that the author uses to keep readers from guessing the true killer or motive. These literary red herrings are used to set up plot twists and surprise endings.
Example: Red herring as a literary device In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses a literary red herring in the form of the escaped convict, Selden. Although Selden is the obvious suspect in the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, it is eventually revealed that he is not the murderer. This misdirection by Conan Doyle makes the story's conclusion especially surprising.
What is a logical fallacy?
A logical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning that renders an argument invalid or unsound. An argument can be fallacious even if its premises and conclusion are factually correct. A logical fallacy is a type of flaw in an argument’s form or content.
Most logical fallacies can be classified as either formal or informal fallacies.
A formal fallacy occurs when an argument’s structure breaks the rules of logic, rendering the argument invalid. These fallacies appear in deductive arguments that start with general principles and apply them to specific cases.
An informal fallacy involves an error in the content of an argument, not its structure. These fallacies are found in inductive arguments that draw general conclusions from specific instances. An argument with an informal fallacy is considered unsound.
All fallacies that rely on diversion, collectively known as fallacies of relevance, can also be considered subcategories of red herring fallacies.
Why do people use red herring fallacies?
When red herring fallacies are used intentionally as a rhetorical technique, their purposes may include the following:
Avoiding unwanted questions
Diverting attention from accusations
Provoking strong emotions
Confusing the audience
Controlling the direction of the debate or conversation
Keep in mind that the rules of argumentation don’t apply to most forms of communication. Fallacies are errors in argumentation, which can typically be found in debates and persuasive writing. Simply changing the subject isn’t a red herring fallacy in most contexts.
Red herring fallacy examples
Red herrings can often be found in political contexts, where they are typically used to deflect criticism, control the direction of a conversation, and evoke strong emotions that can be manipulated to serve an agenda (e.g., fear, anger, or disgust).
Red herring fallacy example in politics
Representative A: We must make diplomatic efforts to stop Country X from committing human rights violations.
Representative B: There is no point in discussing Country X when the whole world is in chaos. Country Y is probably committing cyber attacks on our government agencies as we speak.
Legal arguments are another potential source of red herring fallacies.
Red herring fallacy example in law A defense attorney maligns the victim of a crime to shift the jury’s focus away from the defendant’s crime. By inciting anger towards the victim, the lawyer aims to distract jurors from the defendant's guilt.
Marketing and public relations strategies often use manipulative techniques similar to the red herring fallacy to distract consumers from the mistakes and shortcomings of a brand or celebrity.
Red herring example in media An influencer presents herself as a health expert. She sells products that prove to be unsafe and ineffective. In response to complaints about her products, the influencer makes an emotionally charged video. Instead of admitting and rectifying her mistakes, she describes her experience of being bullied online.
The ability to recognize and identify unsound persuasive techniques is a crucial part of critical thinking and media literacy. Understanding fallacies makes us well-informed consumers of news, information, and products.
How to respond to a red herring fallacy
Red herrings are often used to distract from a weakness. To counter a red herring, note exactly when the subject was changed and which topic or question was avoided. Concentrating on the issues that the other party seeks to evade can expose shortcomings and weak arguments.
Red herring refutation example
Journalist: With the recent outbreak of a new virus, public health facilities have been overburdened. What steps are being taken to upgrade our city’s public health infrastructure and ensure that all patients will receive the care they need?
Government Official: This crisis has been difficult for all of us, but let’s take a moment to appreciate our city’s heroic healthcare workers. Doctors and nurses have done their best under extraordinary circumstances. They’ve been the unsung heroes of this crisis.
Journalist: That’s true, but my question was about the need for more robust infrastructure. What specific actions are being taken to strengthen public health facilities?
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Frequently asked questions about the red herring fallacy
Why is the red herring fallacy a problem?
The red herring fallacy hinders constructive dialogue and prevents meaningful progress in addressing the central issues of a discussion.
The intentional use of red herrings and other fallacies can mislead and manipulate the audience by drawing attention to unrelated topics or emotions, potentially swaying opinions without addressing the substance of the original argument.
What is the difference between red herring and strawman fallacies?
Red herring and straw man fallacies are both informal fallacies that render an argument unsound by derailing or distorting the argument.
Red herring fallacies include any method of distracting from the main points of an argument by introducing irrelevant information.
Straw man fallacies introduce a specific kind of irrelevant information: they present a distorted, easy-to-refute mischaracterization of the opponent’s argument.