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Red herring__a fallacy of relevance

The Red herring fallacy is a type of error that is used as a way of diverting people’s attention from the original topic under discussion. For this purpose, an unrelated question is introduced in the conversation. This fallacy grants an argument that may be correct but does not address the subject being discussed. It is mostly an effort to change the subject.

What are fallacies?

 Fallacies are pseudo arguments;

Although they look like genuine arguments, their premises don’t support the conclusion.

These cause many people to accept or reject the claims when there are no rational grounds for doing so.

Why is it called the Red herring fallacy?

There is a history behind it. This term was used by an English polemicist named William Cobbett in 1807. He went on a hunt one day. He had dogs for hunting the foxes while training his dogs. Then he put some red herring fish to distract the dogs. The result was that the dogs got distracted by the red herring fish and didn’t find the fox. At that time, a red herring fish was used to divert the hounds not to chasing the foxes. That’s why this fallacy is named after that fish.

Red herring fallacy in literature:

This is something that is frequently done in a literary sense when the writer demands to divert the devotion of the reader away from the matter. It can be used as a way for the listener and the reader to draw a false conclusion from the delivering information. In literature red herring fallacy can be used by the author in mystery novels to divert the attention of the reader, so the reader remains curious till the very end. One of the essential uses of the red herring fallacy in literature is to lead the reader to believe that a particular character is a suspect in a crime.


Here are some important Examples:

Example 1: Red Herring in childcare conversation

Mother: It’s bedtime John
John: Mother, how far are the starts?
Mother: Don’t know dear, now shut your eyes and go to sleep.
John: But mother, will the stars fall and hit me?

This bedtime conversation clearly shows how John tries to distract his mother so that he can just stay awake, a little longer.

Example 2: Red Herring in climate change conversation

Jane: The climate change issue is becoming the talk of the town and people are interested in saving the environment.
John: It’s impossible to make our world like the Garden of Eden. What happens if Earth becomes another Eden? Don’t you think we all will get bored like Adam and Eve?

In this case, John’s statements clearly indicate he is trying to change the subject from climate change to how Adam and Eve would have been in Eden.

Example 3: Red Herring in novels

It is quite common for authors and writers to use red herrings in their books. Take the case of mystery and suspense novels, they are so many instances of red herring examples. Many authors use them to hide facts from their readers in order to keep them interested.

For instance, when you look at the “Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown you will notice that the character of Bishop Aringarosa is a perfect example of a red herring. He has presented in such a manner that you as a reader suspected him to be the real mastermind of the entire conspiracy only to find out later that he is innocent.

Brown uses red herring wisely to distract the reader from whom the real villain is, and thereby inserts a sense of mystery into his story. Many readers eventually deduced what “Aringarosa” really meant only later. It is an Italian name that basically means “red herring” in English.

Example 4: Red Herring in political speech

A good example of red herring in a political speech was delivered by Barack Obama when he was United States president. Let’s look at how he tried to divert the attention of the Americans on debt default.

“I am not going to have a monthly or every three months conversation about whether or not we pay our bills because that in and of itself does severe damage. Even the threat of default hurts our economy. It’s hurting our economy as we speak. We shouldn’t be having that debate.”

So, in this speech, it is clear that Obama was stressing a point that the United States would not actually “default” on debt, but it was clearly crafted to divert people’s attention from talking about the debt ceiling.

Functions of Red herring fallacy:

The red herring fallacy is mostly used in conversation with the public to distract them or to change the subject to escape from a difficult situation. For politicians, the red herring fallacy is a trick that they use to dodge awkward questions asked in an argument or conference. They start talking about some unrelated topic to distract the public.

It is mostly used in literature by mystery novel authors. They create suspense by using this fallacy. This trick is used to confuse the reader, and mostly, the reader starts judging any character as the culprit, but at the end of the story, the most innocent one is usually the criminal.

How to Avoid the red herring fallacy?

The best way to avoid this herring fallacy during a conversation is by listening carefully to what the next person is talking about. Humbly and tactfully listen to the opposing party. When someone is arguing with you, you need to repeat the words which the other person is saying. Think before you speak if you find yourself caught in any red herring fallacy.

Some questions have two contradictory answers, and both answers can support your problem. Still, the real one is the only one that can accurately describe your desired answer. So humbly and tactfully notice that the opposing person is not tricking you.

But if someone uses it as a skill, it is beneficial and positive for assembly members, board members, and leaders as well. Using this herring fallacy without coming to the notice of others is somehow more powerful and enjoyable.

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