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Red Herring

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Red Herring

You might be interested to know more about the red herring fallacy, but did you know that the term actually comes from the strong fishy smell of herring when smoked? The herring turns red when smoked, hence the name. Speaking of herrings and colors, did you also know that herrings are also called silver darlings?

Just when you think you are about to get to the bottom of something, someone comes along and changes the subject. This is the red herring fallacy, a rhetorical fallacy (or logical fallacy) employed by stubborn and deceptive arguers to distract you from the matter at hand.

Red Herring Definition

A red herring is a logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error of some kind.

A logical fallacy is employed like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

A red herring fallacy is specifically an informal logical fallacy, which means that its fallacy lies not in the structure of the logic (which would be a formal logical fallacy), but rather in something else about the argument.

A red herring is an irrelevant idea used to divert an argument away from its resolution.

Although red herrings are irrelevant ideas, they are not random. They often share something in common with the topic at hand, which adds to the deception.

Red Herring Argument

Here’s a simple example of how someone can use a red herring to derail an argument.

Person A: Police interrogators can exploit the vulnerable to make false confessions. This has to stop, because it can send innocent people to death row.

Person B: Safety is something we all want: safety for everyone involved. When we talk about police confessions, we need to talk about the safety of the people in the room, the safety of the officers, and the safety of the victims. Let’s work this out. What is “safety”?

Notice that this is not a silly or random counterpoint. It bears some resemblance to the argument at hand, but it is different enough that it circumvents the main argument. This red herring diverts the argument away from its resolution.

Red Herring, police example, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Don't let someone distract you with a red herring.

Red herrings frequently contain emphatic language and truisms, both of which are hard to ignore. In this example, “Safety is something we all want” is a truism, because it says something obviously true that adds nothing to an argument.

Red herrings also frequently end in a question or turn, in order to push the false line of reasoning. In our example, Person B ends with, “Let’s work this out. What is ‘safety’?” This is strong language to dissuade Person A from pursuing the initial argument.

You might have connected the dots already, but red herrings frequently appear in “PR speak.” Public relation (PR) representatives use red herrings to get around hard questions and direct the conversation toward something less negative.

Red Herring Logical Fallacy

It should be easy to guess how the red herring is a fallacy. The red herring is a logical fallacy because it does not work toward an argument’s resolution. In fact, it works toward a stalemate: toward a return to the status quo.

A red herring is not a well-meaning but misguided attempt to get to the bottom of something by looking at a topic from a different angle. The argument that a red herring starts is not a worthwhile argument to have: it is pointless or unanswerable, and ultimately shifts the conversation away from its original subject.

Logic demands answers. Red herrings distract from logic, and thus they are a logical fallacy.

Red Herring Example (Essay)

Let’s look at how a red herring can be employed in an essay. This will be a good way to demonstrate what not to do in your own essay, as well as help you identify red herrings in future readings.

In his 1986 book, Woolworth argues for an abolition of Springfield County’s by-laws regarding air pollution. He comments on page 20, “If any municipal body cannot be bothered to self-regulate its carbon-based emissions, then its rules are like hollow fruits. They should be discarded and new seeds should be planted.” As Woolworth drives toward the idea of stronger state and even federal mandates; however, it’s important to take a step back and consider what laws originally existed for. Between 1755-1750 B.C. the Code of Hammurabi was established, one of the oldest and best-organized pieces of legal writing on Earth. This code is the right place to begin when we examine the word of law—a phrase too often bandied about with arbitrariness and bluster.

Speaking of bluster, what was the point of this paragraph again? Oh, that’s right, to distract the reader from Woolworth’s arguments, and to discuss the Code of Hammurabi instead. Of course, in trademark red herring fashion, the Code of Hammurabi has no bearing on a 20th century legal argument.

When you read something that “smells fishy,” don’t let that smell drift by without inspection. When someone moves from one argument to another, always think back to the original argument. Is this new argument important to the original, or is this a red herring? If it is a red herring, point out the fallacy and return to the original argument.

Tips to Avoid Writing Red Herrings

Outline your essay. In that outline, connect all your arguments back to your thesis. Red herrings crop up when you are wrong or ill-prepared. So, be prepared! Make sure your evidence is accurate, and your thesis is provable from the get-go.

Don’t get distracted or sidetracked. For instance, if you are writing an essay about how to curb urban sprawl, which includes the over-expansion of fast food restaurants, don’t get sidetracked by fast food health arguments. Consider, is this really proving my point, or is this a rabbit hole?

Red Herring, smart argument, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Construct a smart argument, and keep to it.

Finally, don’t be deceptive. Your essay should have nothing to hide. If you are trying to hide a weak argument, or avoid a strong argument, you are probably guilty of a logical fallacy. Stay logical.

Red Herring Expression

Logical fallacies are widely known and referenced in popular culture. Sometimes, this can result in a fallacy being widely misused (e.g., begging the question). However, the expression “red herring” is often very similar to the logical fallacy. In the common vernacular, a red herring is anything that distracts you from the goal.

That said, do understand that most people who use the expression will not have a formal understanding of the rhetorical fallacy. When absorbing evidence for an essay, and you see someone use the term “red herring,” double-check the application of the expression to be sure the fallacy is properly identified.

Red herrings as literary devices are not logical fallacies, as they are not a part of any logical argument. In this way, red herrings in literature are more like red herrings as the common expression: they are used by the author to distract you from the goal of solving the mystery. They are used by villains in stories to distract the hero from solving the mystery as well! For instance, in A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the villain writes the word "RACHE" in blood at the murder scene. This turns out to be a red herring, though, as "RACHE" is neither the unfinished name "Rachel" nor "revenge" in German. It's merely a way that the villain wrong-foots the authorities.

Red Herring - Key takeaways

  • A red herring is an irrelevant idea used to divert an argument away from its resolution.
  • Logic demands answers. Red herrings distract from logic, and thus they are a logical fallacy.
  • Although red herrings are irrelevant ideas, they are not random. They often share something in common with the topic at hand, which adds to the deception.
  • Red herrings frequently end in a question or turn, in order to push the false line of reasoning.
  • To avoid writing red herrings, outline your essay, don't get sidetracked, and don't be deceptive.

Frequently Asked Questions about Red Herring

red herring is an irrelevant idea used to divert an argument away from its resolution. It is a logical fallacy.

A red herring is an irrelevant idea used to divert an argument away from its resolution.

To avoid writing red herrings, outline your essay, don't get sidetracked, and don't be deceptive.

A red herring is an irrelevant idea used to divert an argument away from its resolution. It is a logical fallacy.

The purpose of a red herring is to divert an argument away from its resolution. It is a logical fallacy.

Final Red Herring Quiz

Question

A red herring is a(n) _____ used to divert an argument away from its resolution.

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Answer

Irrelevant idea

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Question

Is a red herring an informal or formal fallacy?

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Answer

Informal.

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Question

Although red herrings are irrelevant ideas, they are not _____. 


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Answer

Random

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Question

Red herrings often share something in common with the _____, which adds to the deception.


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Answer

Topic at hand

Show question

Question

Red herrings frequently contain emphatic language and truisms, both of which are hard to ignore.

True or false?

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Answer

True.

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Question

Red herrings rarely end in a question or turn, so as not to draw attention.

True or false?

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Answer

False. Red herrings also frequently end in a question or turn, in order to push the false line of reasoning. 

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Question

The red herring works toward what, argumentatively?

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Answer

Toward a stalemate: toward a return to the status quo. 

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Question

A red herring is not a well-meaning but misguided attempt to get to the bottom of something by looking at that 'something' from a different angle.

True or false?


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Answer

True.

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Question

The argument that a red herring starts is sometimes a good argument to have, because sometimes it may shed light on a different topic.

True or false?


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Answer

False. 

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Question

_____ demands answers. Red herrings distract from _____, and thus they are a logical fallacy.


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Answer

Logic, logic

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Question

Should you try to answer a red herring directly?

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Answer

No. If someone uses a red herring, point out the fallacy and return to the original argument.

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Question

To avoid writing a red herring, _____ your essay.

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Answer

Outline

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Question

To avoid writing a red herring, don't _____.

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Answer

Get distracted

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Question

Only use a red herring when all else fails.

True or false?

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Answer

False. Never use one.

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Question

If you are quoting an article that uses the expression "red herring," what should you do before citing that part of the article?

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Answer

Understand if the usage is colloquial or if it is an accurate use of the term.

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Question

Does person B employ a red herring in the following conversation?


Person A: We shouldn't support the construction of a new interstate. It would destroy an entire ecosystem.


Person B: True, but panda bears are arguably the worst, so why should we care what happens to them?

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Answer

No.

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Question

Does person B employ a red herring in the following conversation?


Person A: Every person should learn a second language in their lifetime. It's important to brain development and gaining a better understanding of the function of language.


Person B: It's true that learning additional languages is good for your brain, but English is spoken all over the world. You can go to many countries and be able to communicate with people using English.

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Answer

Yes. 

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Question

Select all the answers that explain why is the following conversation not an example of red herring fallacy?


Person A: Meat farming practices are a major contributory to climate change, and if every person on the planet were to commit to eating two meatless meals a week, we could drastically reduce our impact on the planet. 


Person B: You're right about the impact of meat farming practices. I think the burden to change should be on those farming industries, not on the consumer, though. 

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Answer

The response is not irrelevant to the first argument.

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Question

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is the story of an orphan boy named Pip who is given the opportunity to become a gentleman thanks to an anonymous benefactor. Many signs point to Miss Havisham as his benefactor, but it is actually an escaped convict.


Is this a red herring?

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Answer

Yes, it is a red herring according to the definition of use in literature. 

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Question

Red herrings as literary devices are ______ logical fallacies

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Answer

Not

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