A red herring fallacy is a purposeful change in topic to distract from the original topic. So if we have two people debating a particular statement one might change the topic seemingly to promote discussion but in fact it is a ploy to change the topic.
Red Herring Fallacy Examples
Criminality Red herring
Original Argument: “We must legalize weed, it is tearing families apart”
Red Herring: “But look at all those druggies getting arrested, they are obviously criminals”
The Switch: They wouldn’t be getting arrested if the laws were more lenient and conducive to personal freedom. The change in topic is meant to reflect the original argument but is really meant to change the topic. It is a deflection to avoid actually talking about the original premise.
Economic Red Herring
Original Argument: “We must let the banks fail for their bad practices”
Red Herring: “Yea but in tough economic times we need to support our president”
Red Herring Logic Structure
Topic and premise: A is B therefore C (stated by subject A)
Red Herring: (Subject B states) B is D therefore E (B is used to setup a distraction “E” thus a red herring is committed as A and C are both ignored). Note that bringing up new points is not a red herring fallacy in its own right; the new point must deflect from properly addressing the original premise.
Helpful Sources on Red Herring Fallacy
- Nizkor’s Red Herring Fallacy Page
- Fallacy Files: Red Herring Fallacy
- Logical Fallacies Info: Red Herring Fallacy
Alternate Forms and Argumentation Tactics
The red herring fallacy is almost as much an argumentation tactic as it is a logical fallacy. If it is used consciously it is definitely an argumentation tactic. However, red herring can also be quite unconscious. Sometimes when a person’s beliefs are deeply indoctrinated or their identity is dependent on said belief they may trigger this fallacy unconsciously.
If a person commits this consciously they are either deceptive or intellectually dishonest. If done unconsciously then we should feel pity for them and try to be as patient and compassionate as possible. Often times there is no hope of changing this persons mind in the current conversation. However we can try our best to lay the foundation for a true understanding of the fallacious nature of their idea or belief so that later they will have a better chance of fighting their own minds tricks.
To deal with someone employing this tactic we have to remain as focused on the original premise as we can continually going back to the root premise. The individual might begin to employ the fallacy of aggressive amnesia, but still we must point out their fallacy and go back to the premise, over and over. If emotions begin to run high this is the time to end the conversation in as positive and peaceful a manner as we can. I don’t ever ‘agree to disagree’, this is pointless, instead I like to agree to both continue personal research into the subject and maybe continue later.