Red herring is a term that refers to either a type of logical fallacy or a literary device that is frequently used in suspense and mystery literature.
In rhetoric and argumentation, it’s a fallacy that is committed when someone deliberately tries to derail a discussion from the issue at hand to a new, unrelated topic.
In literature, “red herrings” can refer to any kind of misdirection used by the author. For example, they are often employed in mystery novels in order to add suspense to the story by misleading the reader from the right conclusion with false clues.
This article will focus on the logical error illustrating in detail how it works, how to counter it, and show relevant examples, but also briefly explaining the second meaning of the term.
Red Herring Fallacy
The red herring is an attempt to divert the attention away from the relevant issue by introducing another, irrelevant issue. It is an intentionally made distraction to move the argument or a question to a different issue that is easier to respond to.
As such, these types of arguments have the following structure:
- Topic A is under discussion.
- Topic B, which is irrelevant to topic A, is introduced.
- Topic A is abandoned.
Furthermore, this fallacy is also known as “ignoratio elenchi”, “irrelevant conclusion”, “beside the point”, “false emphasis” and the “Chewbacca defense”.
Now, let’s look at some examples of red herrings in politics, media, and real life to better understand it.
Example in Media
- Reporter: “It’s been two years since your policies were implemented, and so far they have failed to reduce unemployment rates.”
- Politician: “I have been working hard ever since I came into office, and I’m happy to say that I met with many business leaders throughout the country, who all say that they are glad to see that our hard work is paying off.”
The politician in the example uses a red herring in order to avoid answering the real question.
Example in Politics
The following example involving politics was given by Madsen Pirie in his book How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic:
“The police should stop environmental demonstrators from inconveniencing the general public. We pay our taxes.”
“Surely global meltdown is infinitely worse than a little inconvenience?”
Example in Business
- Kim: “You shouldn’t charge your clients 25% interest on their loans. It’s unethical.” Jonathan: “Well, if I didn’t charge them that rate, someone else would.”
Whether someone else would charge that rate or not is irrelevant to the real issue of it being unethical.
Example in Real-Life
- Joanna: “Why did you buy that new fishing rod? It exceeds our monthly budget that we both agreed upon.” John: “Well, because it was on sale. I had to buy it now.”
In this example, John uses a red herring in an attempt to distract Joanna from the real issue, which is the fact that he exceeded the budget that they had both agreed upon.
Red herring is an informal fallacy and, more specifically, belongs to the relevance fallacies, which are a broad sub-category of informal fallacies. There are two particularly similar fallacies that may be confused with this one: the straw man fallacy and avoiding the question.
- Straw man fallacy: This flaw in reasoning is a distortion or a misrepresentation of an argument in order to make it easier to defeat, while still pretending to focus on the original issue. The difference is that, unlike the straw man, red herring is an attempt to shift the focus to a different issue.
- Avoiding the question: Similarly to the topic of this article, avoiding the question is a logical fallacy of presenting an argument or a response that doesn’t address the actual issue in question. However, the ignoratio elenchi is a deliberate attempt to divert the focus while avoiding the question occurs when someone misses the point unintentionally.
How to Counter
When it comes to countering red herring arguments, it is essential to understand how the fallacy works and listen carefully before answering.
In order to spot the fallacy, you need to remember that, essentially, an argument containing a red herring uses irrelevant information to change the topic of the discussion.
When you do identify one, make it clear to the other party that the new issue is irrelevant to the topic of the discussion and, if needed, explain why they are committing a fallacy. Then, direct the focus of the discussion back to the original issue by rephrasing your argument or question.
There may be various factors affecting your opponent’s behavior, and they may still be unwilling to return to the original issue. In this case, you have three options:
- You can accept the new topic of discussion and continue with it.
- Disengage from the argument.
- Insist on continuing with the original topic.
It is not always possible to return to the original topic or even continue having a productive discussion. The most reasonable thing to do depends on the specific situation you are in.
Origin of the Term
The term “red herring” comes after a strong-smelling, red-colored fish, and appears to have originated in 1807 when a journalist William Cobbet told a story of how hunters train their hounds by using the smelly fish as a distraction. He compared this to the dishonest practices of politicians, and thus popularized the term.
Red Herring in Literature
Red herrings are common in literature, especially in thriller and mystery novels. They are used as a literary device to make the story more interesting by misleading readers with false clues. This helps in adding suspense and keeping the readers from arriving at the right conclusions too early on. For example, the author might create an intriguing or provocative side character that grabs the reader’s attention and leads them towards mistaken conclusions.
They are traditionally associated with mystery literature, and the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presents many examples of them. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the readers are misled by the butler, who is the most obvious suspect. He is a mysterious and shady character, and one of the key clues seemingly leads to him. However, the butler turns out to be completely innocent.