Red herring: A technique for arguing

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I love a red herring. And no, I don’t mean because it’s an ideal protein in a low-carb high-protein diet. It’s also great for breakfast.

At school I had a maths teacher who was fond of colouring her teaching with idioms. A red herring was one of her favourite idioms.

She would use the phrase as a defence against answering a question she believed to be irrelevant.

“Stay away from red herrings and focus on the question,” she would often say.

In language, a red herring is used to re-direct an argument or derail  its original intention.

Logically Fallacious  explains  a red herring as  misdirection , changing the subject, false emphasis, the Chewbacca defence, irrelevant conclusion, irrelevant thesis, clouding the issue, ignorance of refutation.

It says “the red herringis a deliberate diversion of attention with the intention of trying to abandon the original argument.”

My example:

Tom says, “This club has never had a successful fundraising campaign,” addressing the club chairman.

Chairman says, “How do you define success, and anyway, you never attend meetings? Where have you been for the past six months?”

The point of discussion is no longer about fundraising, but rather about Tom’s poor attendance.  Tom’s argument has fallen apart.

Here is another example from Logically Fallacious.

Mike: It is morally wrong to cheat on your spouse, why on earth would you have done that?

Ken: But what is morality exactly?

Mike: It’s a code of conduct shared by cultures.

Ken: But who creates this code?…

How to apply it

To break it down and apply to any situation, this explanation makes it clear

Argument A is presented by person 1.

Person 2 introduces argument B.

Argument A is abandoned.

 Here is another example.

Mother scolds her son,” You have failed matric. Now what are you going to do?

Son says, “ You don’t have matric, so how can you judge me? I want to be a professional soccer player and I don’t need matric for that.”

The red herring is a fun device to distract people from the point they may want to make. We probably do it all the time without knowing that it’s called a red herring. It’s quite disarming and often interesting to see how someone reacts when you take their argument in a different direction.

Rats in the language

Smoking gun: origins of the idiom



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