Logical & Critical Thinking

with Professor Logic

Red Herring Fallacy

red-herring-fallacyA 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

Alternate Forms and Argumentation Tactics

Fallacy Forms

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.

Argumentation Tactic

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.


11 Responses to Red Herring Fallacy

  1. MicroscopeConsultant says:

    I think I may be confusing Red Herring with another fallacy. What is the fallacy whereby a person deflects to another subject. Example “George Bush nearly doubled the national debt from roughly 5 trillion to 10 trillion.” Response “Obama added 6 trillion alone.” Is that a specific type of fallacy, when my opponent attempts to switch the topic from George W Bush to Barrack Obama?

    • josephleon9 says:

      It depends on the conclusion you deduced from your statement. So if you were trying to make the point that Bush was the worst president because of that financial fact then his counter would not be a red herring and be valid.

      Your logic would’ve been “because financial numbers were such and such bad then this president would be bad” the opponent is using your logic to show a president with a larger negative financial number.

      In short it depends on what your premise structure was.

    • Mike says:

      It all depends on what the main issue was in your original statement. If it was about George Bush’s overall performance during his 8 years in office, then yes, the response about Barack Obama would definitely be considered a red herring. If however, the main topic of the discussion was – let’s say – George Bush’s contribution to the continuing string of overall failures of our nation’s leaders to properly address our country’s fiscal policy throughout the years leading to the ever increasing amount of national debt right up to the present time, then the Barack Obama response would not be considered a red herring.

  2. ThomasCrapper1896 says:

    a fallacy that only deflects the subject is known as “straw man”
    the “straw man” fallacy doesn’t bring up a totally different subject

    • josephleon9 says:

      Straw man is typically where someone exaggerates the opponents position and then attacks them based on this position even when the exaggeration is not truthfully the original position.

  3. Amber Wilkerson says:

    Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy i need help with red herring like what exactly is it or whats does it define or why is it used??

  4. Justine says:

    When is red herring not a fallacy??

  5. Mrinsight says:

    The definition of a Red Herring argument is far from clear. We are given the example in words but then we have 5 symbols (A-E) to represent the example symbolically. I think there needs to be a clearer explanation of what each symbol represents.