A red herring is a type of logical fallacy that misdirects an argument through the introduction of irrelevant information. This tactic is either disingenuous or clumsy and is all too common amongst anti-intellectuals and politicians.
Logical fallacies are flaws in reasoning that are meant to be persuasive, but are actually logically invalid. There are two types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
A formal logical fallacy is invalidated by the very structure of the argument. These arguments are always wrong.
Informal logical fallacies are more commonly employed and tend to be sneakier. So, they are more interesting and require the most attention. An informal logical fallacy is committed when the supplied background information of an argument (the premises) don’t support the conclusion. And there are many different informal logical fallacies.
A red herring is a type of informal logical fallacy. This fallacy is committed when seemingly-relevant information is provided that actually distracts from the real argument. This is a very common tactic in politics because it allows the politician to covertly steer the argument.
The name “red herring” is thought to refer to an antiquated technique for training or distracting hunting dogs. Apparently, a stinking, smoked herring (a “kipper”; Figure 1) was dragged across the path of a dog to throw off its scent.
Red herring examples:
Kellyanne Conway; defence of alternative facts:
During an interview Chuck Todd was trying to extract answers from President Trump’s “Counselor,” Kellyanne Conway. Conway’s rhetorical wriggling ensured that the conversation was hilarious, yet terrifying. At one point, Todd was forced to incredulously ask for clarification on the usefulness of “alternative facts.” Here is conversation:
Todd: “…the facts he uttered were just not true. Look alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods.”
Conway: “Chuck do you think it’s a fact or not that millions of people have lost their plans and health insurance and their doctors under president Obama?”
Healthcare was not the subject of the conversation. Todd’s argument was essentially: “lies were told, they undermine credibility, the Whitehouse shouldn’t have sanctioned this.”
Confronted with that argument Conway’s rebuttal was basically: “How dare you bring up facts!? We do a bad job at helping sick people!”
This is not a valid response. It’s almost psychotic. Healthcare was used as a stinking smoked fish to distract us.
Donald Trump; defense of casually bragging about sexual assault:
During a presidential debate, Anderson Cooper challenged presidential candidate Donald Trump on a shocking recording. In the video, Trump plainly and happily bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” amongst other horrible things. Here is their conversation:
Cooper: “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
Trump: “No I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk. […] Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
Make no mistake. ISIS is bad. However, terrorist organizations in the Middle East have nothing to do with Trump terrorizing women. Furthermore, ISIS had nothing to do with the conversation that Cooper was trying to have with Trump.
This is not a valid response. It’s more akin to the carefree ramblings of a misogynistic sociopath than anything that could be considered a valid argument or response. ISIS was used as a stinking smoked fish to distract us.
Don’t be fooled by red herrings. Keep a vigilant watch for disingenuous arguments. When someone drags a stinking fish carcass through your conversation, call them out on it.
Latest posts by Jared Peters (see all)
- Glaciers are giant canaries, and we’re all coal miners - May 30, 2018
- Polar bears, climate change, and the derailing power of appeals to emotion - December 30, 2017
- Gun control, 10 bad arguments, and maybe some ammunition for productive conversations - October 5, 2017