Red herring

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Hey! These herrings aren't red! Someone shopped this!
Cogito ergo sum
Logic and rhetoric
Icon logic.svg
Key articles
General logic
Bad logic

A red herring, besides being a type of pickled fish, is a fallacious argument style in which an irrelevant or false topic is presented in an attempt to divert attention from the original issue, with the intention of "winning" an argument by leading attention away from the original argument and on to another, often unrelated topic.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because changing the topic of discussion does not count as an argument against a claim.

Alternate names[edit]

Because changing the topic is an extremely common debate tactic, this fallacy has innumerable (mostly boring) names:

  • avoiding/befogging/changing/clouding/evading/ignoring/missing the question/issue/subject/point
  • trivial/irrelevant conclusion/thesis/objection
  • side-tracking
  • smokescreen
  • superficiality
  • megatrifle
  • cavil
  • quibbling
  • nitpicking
  • hair-splitting
  • digression
  • diversion
  • fallacy of materiality
  • fallacy of relevance
  • ignoratio elenchi ("ignorance of refutation")

Etymology[edit]

The name of this fallacy comes from the sport of fox hunting in which a dried, smoked herring, which is red in color, is dragged across the trail of the fox to throw the hounds off the scent. Thus, a "red herring" argument is one which distracts the audience from the issue in question through the introduction of some irrelevancy.

Form[edit]

This "reasoning" takes the following form:

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A, even though topic B has no relevance to topic A.
  3. Topic A ends up being abandoned.

Quibbling[edit]

Quibbling occurs when a very small part of a person's argument, often the extremely precise meaning of a word, is focused on, rather than the argument as a whole.

Quibbling applies almost any time when there's more argument over what someone meant than over whether it's true, except when someone's completely incomprehensible.

Logic chopping[edit]

Logic chopping occurs when often-useful yet time-consuming and often-misunderstood tools of logic (such as converting arguments into syllogisms) are either (a) required of from the speaker, making them waste time rather than make their points, (b) used to disguise the true meaning of a statement, or (c) to turn a simple issue into a complex and difficult philosophical argument.

Logic chopping is essentially quibbling plus unnecessary philosophy.

Examples[edit]

  • "I'm against abortion. By eliminating sexual innuendo from the media, we can prevent its need."
  • Person A: "Nazis are marching on the streets, we need to stop them from spreading fascist ideas!" Person B: "Islamic extremism also spreads fascist ideas, why don't you criticize them?" The fitting response would be: "because they're not marching the streets at this moment, fighting for more acceptance."
  • Person A uses a slur. Person B criticises Person A's use of a slur. Person A: "Freedom of speech! I have a right to state my opinion! This is censorship!" What is actually communicated is "I can say what I want", but person A has conflated that simple concept with the concept of free speech or worse yet: censorship. This forces person B to explain this to person A instead of discussing why or why not they think people shouldn't use that word.
  • Someone expresses criticism towards Gamestop on Facebook that sounds like something Jim Sterling (a YouTuber) would say on one of his videos. Gamestop: "Why don't you tag Jim Sterling himself so he can ask these questions for you." This is to provoke the first person into getting angry, or defend the originality of his statement, or - if they're smart - point out that criticism cannot be repeated enough if there has been no change (but if they're really smart they would just not bite of course).

Tax cut[edit]

An example would be the following (theoretical) argument for a tax cut:

I've begun to think that there is some merit in the Republicans' tax cut plan. I suggest that you come up with something like it, because if we Democrats are going to survive as a party, we have got to show that we are as tough-minded as the Republicans, since that is what the public wants.

Suddenly, the debate is no longer about taxes, but looking good to the public.

Legitimate use[edit]

It's not a red herring if the point is actually crucial to the opponent's argument -- even if they don't realize it. Also most good books or movies would not work without a couple of red herrings thrown out of left field.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]