Liberal Logic – Fallacies: Red Herring

Red Herring
The red herring is as much a debate tactic as it is a logical fallacy. It is a fallacy of distraction, and is committed when a listener attempts to divert an arguer from his argument by introducing another topic. This can be one of the most frustrating, and effective, fallacies to observe.The fallacy gets its name from fox hunting, specifically from the practice of using smoked herrings, which are red, to distract hounds from the scent of their quarry. Just as a hound may be prevented from catching a fox by distracting it with a red herring, so an arguer may be prevented from proving his point by distracting him with a tangential issue.

A red herring is an argument that seems to be relevant to the original premise, and is brought forward as either refutation or support of the same, but in reality, has nothing to do with the issue at hand. The red herring is a well-known and documented informal logical fallacy.

Here is a classic example of a red herring. Originally, the discussion had to do with abortion. Specifically, the Tenth Amendment and the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, and the right of states to determine viability under Roe.

However, the next tweeter posted something about gerrymandering that was completely irrelevant to abortion. It was presented as a refutation to the Tenth Amendment argument, but in reality completely ignored the point of the original tweet.

Debaters should be on the guard for red herrings, as they are a favorite tactic of those trapped in an intellectual corner of a debate.

“[Robert Scott] wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon; this caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters: ‘It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.'”

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