Red Herring: Using Irrelevant Information as a Distraction

red herring

 

A red herring is a piece of information that’s meant to distract people from something important in a misleading manner. Red herrings are usually used either as a literary device, such as when an author uses a side character to divert attention from another character, or as a rhetoric technique, such as when someone responds to a question with unrelated information in order to hide their refusal to answer the original question.

When it comes to rhetoric, the use of red herrings is often referred to as the ‘red herring fallacy’. The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents irrelevant information in an attempt to distract others from a topic that’s being discussed, often to avoid a question or shift the discussion in a new direction. For example, if a politician is asked how they feel about a certain policy, they might use the red herring fallacy by discussing how they feel about a related topic instead, to distract people from their failure to answer the original question.

Because red herrings are frequently used in a variety of contexts, it’s important to understand this concept. As such, in the following article you will see examples of red herrings, learn more about red herrings and about the red herring fallacy, and understand how you can properly respond to people who use red herrings in a fallacious manner.

 

Examples of red herrings

A simple example of a red herring is a corporate executive who’s asked “what do you think about your company’s new environmental policy?”, and responds by saying “the company is making great progress in product development that we hope will help our customers”. This is an example of a red herring in general and of the red herring fallacy in particular, since the executive responds to the question using irrelevant information, in an attempt to evade it and distract listeners.

Other examples of 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:

Alex: 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, Alex raises a valid concern, which Bob avoids addressing by using a red herring in order to change the subject. This is therefore also an example of the red herring fallacy, since the red herring in this case is used with the intent of distracting the other person and changing the topic.

In addition, 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’re glad to see that our hard work is paying off.

Here, the interviewer asks a valid question, and the politician responds with a red herring, in the form of a vague and seemingly related statement, which is meant to distract listeners and mislead them into believing that the politician directly answered the question. As in the case of the previous example, this is also an example of the red herring fallacy, since it involves the use of a red herring with the intention of distracting the audience in a misleading manner.

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

Reporter: Students are organizing a march because they want their opinions about the environment to be heard. But what about recent the recent controversy with the school board’s election procedure?

Here, the fallacious red herring is used to distract viewers from the original topic. Note how there’s superficial similarity between the red herring and the original topic, since they both relate to education; this is done to hide the use of the red herring, and make it appear as if it’s a relevant part of the original discussion.

Furthermore, 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 response, so you can buy more at a lower cost!

Here, the manufacturer is being criticized for one aspect of their product (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. The use of the red herring in this case is also fallacious, since it’s used in a way which is meant to distract listeners.

Finally, it’s important to also note that red herrings aren’t always a part of the red herring fallacy, and can also be used in other ways, and especially as a literary device.

For instance, an example of a red herring as a literary device 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.

Overall, examples of red herrings in general and of the red herring fallacy in particular appear in various contexts, such as in politics, in the media, and in regular everyday interactions. When red herrings are used, they can take various forms. For example, a red herring can be a single highly controversial topic, that’s likely to attract people’s attention, or an abstract and unclear statement, that’s likely to confuse people and cause them to forget the original discussion.

In general, the use of red herrings in argumentation and rhetoric is well summarized using the following saying:

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

Note: when the red herring fallacy is used in a vague manner that doesn’t involve any specific topic, its use is sometimes referred to as pettifoging.

 

Understanding the red herring fallacy

As noted above, the red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents irrelevant information in an attempt to distract others from a topic that’s being discussed, often to avoid a question or shift the discussion in a new direction.

This fallacy is frequently used in arguments and debates on various topics, and is generally a sign that the person who’s using it doesn’t want to continue the current line of discussion, especially if they use the red herring in response to a question that they were asked. For example, the following exchange demonstrates how the red herring fallacy might be used in a political context:

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 people’s best interests, as you can see based on the important new law educational reform that I was recently involved in.

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, in an attempt to distract listeners and shift the discussion away from the original topic.

The red herring fallacy is an informal logical fallacy, and specifically a fallacy of relevance (sometimes also referred to as a fallacy of irrelevance), since it involves information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. In addition, the red herring fallacy is sometimes also referred to as the diversion fallacy or the digression fallacy, since it involves the intent to divert attention away from some topic by discussing something else instead.

 

How to respond to red herrings

The first step to responding to a fallacious red herring is to recognize that a red herring has been used. You can do this by asking yourself whether the information that’s been presented is relevant to the topic at hand, or whether it’s meant to distract you or others from what’s being discussed, often as a way to avoid a question or shift the discussion in a new direction.

Once you recognize that a red herring was used, there are several things that you can do in response:

  • Ask the person who used the red herring to justify it. This can be especially beneficial in cases where you’re unsure if something that was mentioned is a red herring or not. However, this can also be useful in cases where you know for certain that the other person used a red herring on purpose, because it shows your willingness to engage in a discussion, and highlights the flaws with the other person’s reasoning.
  • Point out the red herring and explain why it’s fallacious. Specifically, you should show that the red herring is irrelevant to the original line of discussion, and that it’s likely meant as a way to distract people.
  • Redirect the conversation back to the original line of discussion. You can do this in various ways, depending on the circumstances. For example, if the red herring was used to evade a question, you can repeat that question. Note that if the other person decides to keep using red herrings, sticking to the original line of discussion can lead to unproductive dialogue, where people are talking at each other instead of with each other. However, this approach can still be beneficial in some cases, such as when you want to highlight your opponent’s attempts to avoid the topic.
  • Accept the red herring and move on with the discussion. Though this means accepting fallacious reasoning, it is sometimes the only way to ensure that the discussion continues in a reasonable and productive manner, which makes it the best course of action in some cases.
  • Disengage from the discussion. Sometimes, you might realize that there is simply no point to the discussion, for example if the other person keeps shifting the topic instead of saying anything of value, in which case the best course of action might be to simply drop the discussion. Note that, if you decide to do this, it might be beneficial to state why you’re doing so, and potentially to add that you’d be open to talking again if the other person would be willing to stop using the red herrings.

You can use any combinations of these techniques that you believe is appropriate. For example, you might first ask the person who used the red herring to justify it, and then redirect the conversation back to the original line of discussion. Alternatively, you might point out the use of the red herring, and then, based on the other person’s reaction, decide whether to accept the red herring or disengage from the discussion.

To choose the best technique in your particular situation, you should take into account relevant personal and situational factors, such as the topic being discussed, the reason why the other person wishes to avoid this topic, the relationship that you have with the other person, the context in which the conversation is taking place, and the type of audience listening to the conversation (if there is one).

When doing this, it’s important to keep in mind that the use of red herrings in a conversation can sometimes be reasonable. For example, if you’re having a friendly conversation with someone and they intentionally reply to a question with an 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.

Overall, to respond to a red herring, you can ask the person who used it to justify it, point it out yourself and explain why it’s fallacious, redirect the conversation back to the original line of discussion, accept it and move on, or disengage from the discussion entirely. When deciding which techniques to use, you should take into account personal and situational factors, such as the topic being discussed and the reason why the other person wishes to avoid it.

Note: in cases where you’re uncertain whether someone used a red herring or not, you should implement the principle of charity. In this context, this primarily means that you should assume that the potential red herring represents relevant information in some way, as long as it’s reasonable to do so.

 

Additional information

Related fallacies

The red herring fallacy is closely associated with a fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi (meaning “ignorance of refutation”), which is sometimes also referred to as wrong conclusion, irrelevant conclusionirrelevant thesis, or missing the point. This fallacy involves presenting an argument whose conclusion is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

The term ‘red herring fallacy’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘ignoratio elenchi’, and the red herring fallacy is sometimes considered to be a subtype of ignoratio elenchi, or to overlap with some variants of it, and especially those that are meant to serve as a diversion. However, a distinction is sometimes drawn between the red herring fallacy and ignoratio elenchi, where arguments that don’t arrive at a specific conclusion are classified as cases of the red herring fallacy, and arguments that do arrive at a specific (irrelevant) conclusion are classified as cases of ignoratio elenchi.

In addition, there are a number of other logical fallacies that are closely associated with the red herring fallacy, generally because they revolve around information that’s somehow irrelevant to the discussion. Most notably, these include the following:

  • The strawman fallacy, which occurs when someone distorts an opposing argument in order to make it easier to attack.
  • The ad hominem fallacy, which occurs when someone uses a personal attack against the source of an argument, rather than against the argument itself.
  • The appeal to emotion, which occurs when a misleading argument, and particularly one that is unsound or missing factual evidence, is used with the goal of manipulating people’s emotions.

The red herring fallacy is also closely associated with a number of similar rhetoric techniques. This includes, for example, a legal strategy known as the Chewbacca defense, which involves a lawyer trying to confuse the jury rather than refute the case of the opposition.

 

Origin and history of the term ‘red herring’

In the literal sense, a ‘red herring’ is a herring (a type of fish) that was cured through drying and smoking, 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 cured 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”.

Red herring was sometimes used to draw hounds to the scent of an animal being hunted, or to train animals to follow the trail of a hunting party. 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.”

— From “Lenten Stuff” (by Thomas Nashe, 1599)

And:

“… the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles, (according to the Will of the Rider, or the Directions given him) and then laying the Dogs on the scent.”

— From “Gentleman’s Recreation” (by Nicholas Cox, 1686), under “The Hunter: A Discourse of Horsemanship in the third edition (running head “The Hunting Horse”), in Chapter VI

The figurative use of the term ‘red herring’ in order to refer to something that distracts or misleads came later. Specifically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known figurative use of the term ‘red herring’ in writing appeared in an 1807 text by British journalist William Cobbett, who told a tale of using red herring to distract hounds, and used it to draw parallels to a case of political deception:

“When I was a boy, we used, in order to draw off the harriers from the trail of a hare that we had set down as our own private property, get to her haunt early in the morning, and drag a red-herring, tied to a string, four or five miles over hedges and ditches, across fields and through coppices, till we got to a point, whence we were pretty sure the hunters would not return to the spot where they had thrown off; and, though I would, by no means, be understood, as comparing the editors and proprietors of the London daily press to animals half so sagacious and so faithful as hounds, I cannot help thinking, that, in the case to which we are referring, they must have been misled, at first, by some political deceiver…

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

— From “Cobbett’s Weekly Political Registry”, in Vol. XI, No. 7 (published February 14, 1807), under the “Continental War” in “Summary of Politics” (the first part of the quote appears on page 232, and the second part appears on page 233, with relevant material appearing between them)

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A red herring is a piece of information that’s meant to distract people from something important in a misleading manner.
  • Red herrings are usually used either as a literary device, such as when an author uses a side character to divert attention from another character, or as a rhetoric technique, such as when someone responds to a question with unrelated information in order to hide their refusal to answer the original question.
  • The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents irrelevant information in an attempt to distract others from a topic that’s being discussed, often to avoid a question or shift the discussion in a new direction.
  • To respond to a red herring, you can ask the person who used it to justify it, point it out yourself and explain why it’s fallacious, redirect the conversation back to the original line of discussion, accept it and move on, or disengage from the discussion entirely.
  • When deciding how to respond to a red herring, you should take into account relevant personal and situational factors, such as the topic being discussed, the reason why the other person wishes to avoid this topic, the relationship that you have with the other person, the context in which the conversation is taking place, and the type of audience listening to the conversation (if there is one).