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The red herring fallacy, one of the many logical fallacies you might encounter in essays, speeches, opinion pieces, and even casual conversations, is an attempt to reroute a discussion from its original topic and focus on something unrelated.
Logical fallacies are so pervasive in our communication that they can be easy to miss—but once you know how to recognize them, you can catch them in your work and remove them before they undermine your arguments.
A red herring is a misleading statement, question, or argument meant to redirect a conversation away from its original topic.
The purpose of a red herring is to distract the reader or listener from the actual issue being discussed in a conversation or piece of writing. This isn’t always for nefarious purposes—sometimes, it’s a literary strategy used to keep readers in suspense.
Logical fallacies can be broadly divided into two categories: formal and informal fallacies. Formal fallacies are statements that are flawed because the structure of the statement itself is flawed. For example, the non-sequitur fallacy, the type of fallacy where the conclusion does not logically follow the premise, is a formal fallacy. Take a look at this example of the non-sequitur fallacy:
If a food is cold, then it is a dessert. Salad is cold. Therefore, salad is a dessert.
Informal fallacies are statements that are flawed because they lack a logically grounded premise. Rather than the statement being structurally unsound, the content presented in the statement doesn’t logically fit into its structure.
Here’s an example of a red herring statement using the same content as our non-sequitur example above:
If a food is cold, then it is a dessert. Salad is cold. But salad isn’t sweet, so it can’t be a dessert.
In a debate, a participant might use a red herring to avoid discussing a topic for which they don’t have a well-developed position or if their position could make them look bad to the audience and media.
Similar to a politician using a red herring in a debate, an individual might use a red herring in an argument to distract the other party from the criticism they’re making.
In philosophy, red herrings function similarly to how they work in arguments and debates. The difference here is that they might be intentionally employed as a way to drive readers to think critically about a new argument. In pedagogy, such as in law school settings, red herrings might be worked into exams and study problems to test students’ comprehension of the information presented and their ability to reach the correct legal conclusion.
People use red herrings in nearly every kind of communication.
These include the following:
Sometimes, speakers and writers make red herring statements inadvertently, either because they genuinely think the statement they’re making is relevant to the discussion or because they aren’t thinking critically about the statements they’re making.
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