Fallacy: Red Herring

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The red herring fallacy could also be called the, look over there fallacy.

Much like its use in fiction, the red herring in arguments is meant to avoid talking about the subject at hand.


Example of red herring fallacy

Mary: “I’m very concerned about putting someone who believes that sexual assault is ok, as Fred does, in charge of making our rules.”
Fred: “George has also committed sexual assault.”
Mary: “He’s not applying for a job where he’s in charge of relevant rules.”
Fred: “Yeah, but look at him. He’s a bastard, isn’t he.”

When we’re looking at these fallacies and what makes them fallacies, let’s not take sides. Keep in mind that when we’re looking at a single fallacy, we’re not looking at the whole picture, we’re only looking at one specific argument and whether or not that argument supports the cause.

In this case we can make a presumption about the conclusions the speakers are getting at. From the example at hand, we can conclude that the argument is in regards to Fred’s application for a position that puts him in charge of rules. No other applicants have been named or suggested in this example.

Mary’s argument in logical form:
Premise 1: Sexual assault is not ok.
Premise 2: Fred thinks sexual assault is ok.
Conclusion: Putting Fred in charge of making rules is concerning.


Why it’s erroneous

Oddly, Mary’s argument doesn’t fully support the conclusion in a deductive way. At best, it can be called inductively cogent.

That doesn’t mean it’s incorrect, just that it ought to be explored further.

However, that’s not what Fred does. Fred doesn’t ask how that would influence his decisions. He doesn’t ask what harm that could possibly bring to the organization he wishes to have command over.

He doesn’t acknowledge this argument at all, instead, he creates a distraction. He asks us not to think about his qualifications, he asks us to look at something else.

This is a red herring.

Author: A. Primate

Mammal. Organizes itself into complex social hierarchies. Very particular about objects - even those that can't be eaten or used for shelter. Seemingly aware of itself as separate from the environment.

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