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Snopestionary: The 'Red Herring' Logical Fallacy

This logical fallacy is sometimes referred to as the fallacy of distraction.

Published Jun 10, 2022

 (Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Wikimedia Commons


Speak like an insider! Welcome to Snopestionary, where we’ll define a term or piece of fact-checking lingo that we use on the Snopes team. Have a term you want us to explain? Let us know.

The red herring logical fallacy is very often used -- so often you may not even notice when it comes into play.

Here's one example: On June 9, 2022, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tweeted in response to public hearings held by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol:

The psychology and philosophy website Effectiviology described the fallacy this way:

When it comes to rhetoric, the use of red herrings is often referred to as the ‘red herring fallacy’. The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents irrelevant information in an attempt to distract others from a topic that’s being discussed, often to avoid a question or shift the discussion in a new direction. For example, if a politician is asked how they feel about a certain policy, they might use the red herring fallacy by discussing how they feel about a related topic instead, to distract people from their failure to answer the original question.

Here's another example of the logical fallacy (and bad parenting) on display, provided by Texas State University's philosophy department:

Daughter: "I'm so hurt that Todd broke up with me,

Mother: "Just think of all the starving children in Africa, honey. Your problems will seem pretty insignificant then."

The red herring fallacy is therefore sometimes described as a fallacy of misdirection or distraction.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary notes that the term red herring, unsurprisingly, stems from the art of distraction. Preserved herring not only have a reddish color to them, they also have a strong smell — a smell that was ideal for use as a method of throwing hunting dogs off their trail. According to Merriam-Webster, "The practice of using preserved fish to confuse hunting dogs led to the use of the term red herring for anything that diverts attention from the issue at hand."

Sources:

"Red Herring: Using Irrelevant Information as a Distraction." Effectiviology. https://effectiviology.com/red-herring/. Accessed 10 June 2022.

"Red-Herring." Texas State University, 15 May 2019, //www.txstate.edu/philosophy/resources/fallacy-definitions/Red-Herring.html.

"Red Herring Examples: Fallacies of Misdirection." YourDictionary.com, https://examples.yourdictionary.com/red-herring-examples.html. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more

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