The Red Herring Fallacy

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By aaron

A red herring is an argument tactic in which someone makes a claim or provides evidence that is irrelevant to the debate topic. The tactic is usually used either to dodge a question or to change the subject of discussion.

Consider this example debate over whether or not vaccines cause autism.

Bob says: Vaccines cause autism.
To which Suzy replies: How can you say that when all scientific evidence says they don't?
Bob replies: Oh come on! The pharmaceutical industry makes billions every year from pain and suffering!

In this debate, Bob is committing a red herring fallacy. It may be true that the pharmaceutical industry makes billions of dollars every year, and it might even be true that they make that money from “pain and suffering”. But frankly, that doesn't really matter for this discussion because it has nothing to do with whether or not vaccines cause autism.

The only evidence that matters in this discussion is credible scientific evidence, all of which shows no link between vaccines and autism. If Bob can show reliable scientific evidence to the contrary, he is welcome to do so, and that would not be a red herring because it contributes to the discussion. However, simply pointing out the amount of money made by pharmaceutical companies is just plain irrelevant.

Red herrings are a common tactic among people with no evidence to support their claims. They are also used when someone wants to avoid answering a question, such as in politics. Many times, politicians don't like to provide details about their views on controversial topics because it could cause them to lose votes. Instead, they will sometimes use a red herring to try and change the topic, as in this example:

Journalist: Senator, do you support the plan to increase military spending?
Senator: Our armed forces are some of the strongest and most sophisticated in the world.

This response is a red herring. It doesn't really address the question of whether or not the military should receive more funding. Instead, it is an attempt to change the topic away from funding by bringing up other random information that isn't totally relevant.

The origins of the term “red herring” are unclear, but most people believe it has something to do with using a dead fish to divert the scent of dogs. Some attribute the practice to hunters using the fish to train their dogs, others believe the term was coined by fugitives using a dead fish to cover their trail and distract police dogs. The fugitive explanation is more common, but in one episode of MythBusters, they tried this trick and it didn't work, so it remains unclear if this is where the term comes from.

Regardless of the origins, the red herring fallacy is a common one. Next time someone tries to distract you with irrelevant details, be sure to call them out on their red herring. #logic #skepticism #criticalthinking #fallacy #fallacies

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