Red Herring Fallacy Facts

If you've been a part of any arguments or debates, there is a good chance you have come across something known as the red herring fallacy before, even if you don't know it by name. A successful debater should learn to avoid using red herrings in their arguments and also how to recognize and refute them in the arguments of others.

What is a red herring fallacy?

The red herring fallacy is known as a logical fallacy but could also be correctly referred to as an evasion tactic. It refers to an argument that is irrelevant to the main point, used to distract the audience or the other party from the issue in question. Ambiguous language is used to try to hide the fact that the argument a person is making does not logically lead to the person's conclusion, and the debater might choose something with strong emotional appeal to further throw others off the scent.

If Topic A is the issue being debated, then a Topic B is introduced under the guise of being related to Topic A, this tactic is known as a red herring.

Examples of the red herring fallacy

Examples of red herring fallacies can be found in debates of all types about all different subjects. They could include arguments such as:

  • "We are at war, therefore we can't worry about the environment right now."
  • "I know I forgot to go to the store yesterday, but nothing I do pleases you."
  • "Government bailouts of banks might not seem fair, but we need to support our president in tough times like these."

Each of these arguments brings up a compelling point, but one that has nothing to do with the issue being debated. Each one attempts to shift the attention of the debate over to a different topic, which is not the main matter at hand.

How to refute a red herring fallacy

Recognizing a red herring is key when it comes to formulating a proper response. You may be tempted to begin arguing about the irrelevant topic brought up as a red herring, but that is what the other party wants. Instead, point out how it would be best to stay on topic, and refuse to lose sight of what the debate is actually about.

Why is it called a red herring fallacy?

The name of the red herring fallacy, which is also known by the Latin name ignoratio elenchi, or irrelevant conclusion, comes from a common practice during the sport of fox hunting. A dried, smoked herring is sometimes dragged across the scent trail of the fox to throw dogs off the scent. In the same way, a person who uses a red herring fallacy attempts to throw the audience off the scent by introducing an irrelevant topic.

A skilled debater should be familiar with the types of logical fallacies and how to recognize and refute them. Don't let the person you're arguing with throw you off the scent with a red herring-instead, insist on sticking to the point.

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