Red Herring: How People Use Irrelevant Information as a Distraction

Red Herring

 

A red herring is something that distracts people from an important issue or from an issue that is currently being discussed.

Accordingly, the red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents an irrelevant piece of information in an attempt to distract their opponent and the audience from the topic which is being discussed, or to shift the discussion in a new direction.

Because the use of red herrings is so prevalent, it’s important to understand how a red herring works. In the following article, you will learn more about the concept of the red herring, and about the use of the red herring fallacy in debates. Then, you will then see some examples of the use of red herrings in practice, and learn how you can counter such uses effectively.

 

What is a red herring

A red herring is something that distracts people from an important issue or from an issue that is currently being discussed. A red herring usually appears either as a literary device, where it is used in order to intentionally mislead readers, or as a rhetoric technique, where it is used, either intentionally or unintentionally, in order to mislead listeners.

An example of a red herring in literature can be found in the Sherlock Holmes novel titled The Hound of Baskerville (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), where the storyline of the escaped convict Barrymore, who in the end turns out to be innocent, is used as a red herring in order to distract readers from the real culprit in the story

The use of a red herring in this context demonstrates how, as a literary device, the red herring can be used in order to create suspense, and make it more difficult for readers to predict the conclusion of the story.

 

What is the red herring fallacy

The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents an irrelevant piece of information in an attempt to distract their opponent and the audience from the topic which is being discussed, or to shift the discussion in a new direction.

This fallacy is frequently used in arguments and debates, and is generally a sign that the person who is using it doesn’t want to continue the current line of discussion, especially if they use the red herring in response to a question.

For example, the following exchange demonstrates how a red herring might be used in a conversation:

Reporter: There have been accusations of corruption made against your campaign office. What do you have to say about that?

Politician: I’d like to assure the public that my staff and I are always hard at work, and that we are always looking out for their best interests.

Here, the reporter raises a concern about political corruption, and asks the politician to comment on it. Instead of doing that, the politician replies using an empty statement, that shifts the topic away from the discussion of corruption in their campaign.

As such, the red herring fallacy is an informal logical fallacy, since it involves premises and conclusions which are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. More specifically, the red herring fallacy is categorized as a fallacy of relevance in general, and as an irrelevant conclusion fallacy or an irrelevant argument fallacy in particular.

This type of fallacy is often referred to as ignoratio elenchi, a term that stands for “ignorance of refutation”, since these arguments fail to address the issue in question. Colloquially, this fallacy is sometimes referred to simply as missing the point.

Note: there are a number of other fallacies of relevance that are related to the red herring fallacy, all of which rely on flawed premises, since the content of the argument in which they appear is irrelevant to the discussion. The most notable fallacies of this type are the strawman fallacy, which occurs when someone distorts their opponent’s argument in order to make it easier to attack, and the ad hominem fallacy, which occurs when someone attacks their opponent directly, instead of addressing the argument that they are trying to make.

 

Examples of red herrings

Red herrings appear in various contexts, and we encounter them often in our everyday life. For instance, the following is an example of the use of a red herring in a simple workplace conversation:

Alice: You promised me yesterday that you were going to take care of this task.

Bob: Oh yeah, that. Actually, I’m working on a really cool project now, want to see some screenshots?

Here, Alice raises a valid concern, which Bob ignores by using an unrelated red herring in order to change the subject.

Next, the following is an example of a red herring in a political discussion:

Interviewer: 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.

Here, the interviewer asks a valid question, which the politician ignores by using a red herring, and replying with a vague and unrelated statement, which doesn’t answer the original question.

In addition, the following is an example of a red herring in the media:

Reporter: Students are organizing a march because they want their opinions to be heard when it comes to determining how schools should be run. But what about the teachers? They are the ones who really need to be heard.

Here, the reporter brings up the teachers in order to distract viewers from the fact that the students are asking to provide input into decisions that will affect them. This red herring is more subtle than the ones in the previous examples, and its phrasing implicitly suggests that any discussion of the students’ plight should be dropped, since the teachers’ plight is more important, though the two are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, the following is an example of a red herring in an advertisement:

Manufacturer: Lately, there has been a lot of criticism regarding the quality of our product. We’ve decided to have a new sale in reponse, so you can buy more at a lower cost!

Here, the manufacturer is being criticized for one aspect of their product (its quality), and decides to distract people from the issue by running a sale, and focusing on the new, reduced price of the product instead of addressing the issue for which they were criticized.

Overall, there are many examples of situations where people use red herring arguments. This type of argument is best summarized using the following saying:

“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

 

How to counter the red herring fallacy

In order to successfully counter an argument which contains a fallacious red herring, you must first recognize that a red herring has been used.

We saw the formal definition of a red herring argument above, together with a number of examples, but the basic thing to remember is that a red herring argument is an argument that contains information which is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and which has the goal of serving either as a distraction, or as a way to change the topic.

Once you recognize that a red herring argument was used, you can counter it by pointing out the red herring, and explaining why its use is fallacious. Specifically, you should show that what your opponent said has nothing to do with the original line of discussion, and that the information that they mentioned was used with the goal of changing the topic.

Then, you can redirect the conversation back to the topic that was originally being discussed, either by adding more comments of your own on the topic, or by giving your opponent a chance to reply in a proper way, if they used the red herring in response to a question.

While this approach can sometimes work, you might encounter situations where the person you are talking to refuses to return to the original line of discussion, even after you point out their fallacious use of a red herring.

When this happens, there are several factors that you should take into account as you decide how to proceed. These include, most notably:

  • The topic which is being discussed.
  • The reason why the other person wishes to avoid this topic.
  • The context in which the conversation is taking place.
  • The relationship that you have with the person that you are talking to.
  • The nature of the audience which is watching the conversation (if there is one).

Once you take these factors into account, you can pick one of the following strategies, with regards to how you should respond to the red herring:

  • Continue with the original line of discussion. This tactic makes sense only if you are absolutely unwilling to change the topic, which can be a reasonable decision in some cases, such as when you want to highlight your opponent’s attempts to avoid the topic. If you use this approach, eventually one of you will agree to discuss the topic being proposed by the other, or the two of you might end up talking at each other about different topics, in a form of highly unproductive dialogue.
  • Accept the new line of conversation. This entails simply accepting that the topic of the discussion has changed, either with or without pointing out the fallacious use of the red herring. Even though doing this means accepting the use of the red herring, it can sometimes be the only way to ensure that the discussion continues in a reasonable and productive manner. Note that in some cases, this might the best course of action, simply because it’s the only way to keep the conversation going.
  • Disengage from the discussion. Sometimes, you might realize that there is simply no point to the discussion, since your opponent keeps shifting the topic instead of saying anything of value. If you decide that this is the case, and that you want to disengage from the discussion, make sure to explain that you’re doing it because of your opponent’s use of the red herring fallacy, and not because you’re unwilling to discuss the topic in general.

Overall, in theory, the main way to counter the use of a red herring in an argument is to point out its use, explain why it’s fallacious, and then return to the original line of discussion. In practice, however, the situation is more complex, and this method doesn’t always work.

Therefore, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, you should accept the fact that it’s not always possible to successfully counter the use of red herring arguments, and that in many cases, it can be more productive to simply accept the use of the red herring, in order to keep the conversation going.

 

Intentional and unintentional use of red herring arguments

When countering the use of red herring arguments by others, it’s important to keep in mind that not every use of a red herring is intentional, and to act accordingly. This is because attacking your opponent too forcefully for using a red herring might lead to a backfire effect, where they are not willing to change their mind on a topic, even after you show them that their reasoning is flawed.

Therefore, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, try to apply the principle of charity, and assume that the person you are talking to is using the red herring unintentionally. Then, try to help them internalize the error in their reasoning, by pointing it out in a non-confrontational manner.

However, even in cases where it’s clear that the person you are talking to is using a red herring argument intentionally, you should consider the fact that it might be reasonable to do so.

For example, if you’re having a friendly conversation with someone and they reply to a question that you ask them with an intentionally unrelated answer, it’s possible that they used a red herring because you brought up a sensitive topic that they don’t want to discuss, in which case you should accept their use of a red herring.

Finally, keep in mind that you might also be using red herrings in your arguments, without being aware that you are doing so. The time when we are most likely to use red herrings unintentionally is when we feel uncomfortable with a certain line of discussion, so you should be mindful of your arguments under such circumstances.

For example, many people tend to use red herrings in everyday conversations unnecessarily, as soon as they realize that they were wrong about something. In such cases, it’s important to recognize what you are doing and why, so you can avoid using fallacious reasoning, and so you can improve your ability to engage in proper discourse with others.

 

Origin of the term ‘red herring’

Though learning about the history of the term ‘red herring’ is unnecessary when it comes to knowing how to recognize and counter red herring arguments, it’s still a topic that some people might find interesting.

‘Red herring’ is a fish (usually a herring, but not necessarily) which has been heavily cured in a process that gives it a strong, pungent smell, and turns its flesh a reddish color.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, references to red herring as a type of fish can be found in writing as early as the beginning of the 14th century, with the first listed use of the term being a 1333 reference to “heryng red” in the “Glossary of W. de Bibbesworth”.

The idiomatic use of the term ‘red herring’ in order to refer to something that misleads others came much later, and is generally attributed to the apocryphal belief that red herring could be used to distract hounds who were tracking a person or an animal, due to its strong scent.

Specifically, the use of the term ‘red herring’ as we know it today appears to have originated in 1807, in the writing of journalist William Cobbett, who told a tale of using red herring to distract hounds, and compared that practice to the deceptive practices of various politicians:

“Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, оn the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”

– Cobbett’s Weekly Political Registry, February 1807

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this widespread myth appears to be incorrect, since red herring was originally used in order to draw hounds to the scent of an animal being hunted, or to train animals to follow the trail of a hunting party, rather than to distract them. This is evident, for example, in the following quotes:

“Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.”

Nashe in Lenten Stuff, 1599

And:

“The trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles..and then laying the Dogs on the scent.”

Cox in Gentleman’s Recreation, 1697

Overall, it appears that red herring was originally used in order to attract the attention of hounds during hunts. Eventually however, the term ‘red herring’ was used metaphorically in order to signify something that serves as a distraction, by someone who misunderstood its original function. This meaning of the term stuck, and remains in widespread use today.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A red herring is something that distracts people from an important issue, or from an issue that is currently being discussed.
  • A red herring usually appears either as a literary device, where it’s used in order to intentionally mislead readers, or as a rhetoric technique, where it’s used, either intentionally or unintentionally, in order to mislead listeners.
  • Accordingly, the red herring fallacy occurs when an argument relies on irrelevant information (i.e. a red herring), in order to distract or mislead listeners.
  • To counter the use of red herring arguments in a debate, you should point out that your opponent’s reasoning was fallacious, and that what they said has nothing to do with the original line of discussion. If this fails, you can choose to either stick with the original line of discussion, accept the new topic, or withdraw from the discussion entirely.
  • When deciding how to respond to the use of a red herring, it’s important to remember that people don’t always use it intentionally, and that in some cases, the use of a red herring might represent a reasonable attempt to shift the topic.