The Red Herring fallacy is a rhetorical tactic where someone introduces an irrelevant issue or piece of information to divert attention away from the subject of the argument. The purpose of this diversion is to sidetrack the opponent and the audience, steering the conversation in a new direction to avoid discussing or dealing with the original issue. Essentially, a Red Herring is used to dodge a question or responsibility by changing the subject.
The term “Red Herring” is believed to have originated from the practice of using a smoked herring, which is red and has a strong smell, to train hunting dogs to follow a scent. In this training exercise, a red herring would be dragged across the trail of another animal to test the dog’s ability to stick with the original scent rather than being thrown off by the new one. In a similar way, the Red Herring fallacy tries to throw an argument off track.
Imagine a political debate where a candidate is asked about their stance on healthcare reform. Instead of addressing the issue directly, the candidate starts talking about the importance of national defense and how they have always supported the military.
In this example, the candidate employs a Red Herring by shifting the conversation to national defense, a topic that, while important, has nothing to do with the original question about healthcare reform. By diverting attention away from their stance (or lack of stance) on healthcare, the candidate sidesteps the question and avoids giving a direct answer.
This tactic might appeal to some members of the audience who also prioritize national defense, but it does not provide an answer to the original question. It creates a distraction that clouds the issue, making it easier for the candidate to avoid scrutiny on the healthcare topic.
The Red Herring fallacy is a common tool in political discourse, sales tactics, and everyday arguments. Being aware of it can help you recognize when someone is attempting to divert the argument and can aid you in steering the conversation back to the topic at hand.