A red herring is a logical fallacy where information is presented to distract from the main issue or argument being discussed.
We often see red herring fallacies in politics, law, and in the media. But you may find that you’ve used them yourself in arguments with friends and family!
They often arise when people are cornered or feel pressured to defend themselves. Deferring to a red herring helps to distract from the discussion and to avoid answering the question head-on.
Red Herring Fallacy Definition
The term “red herring” was coined by William Cobbett in 1807. It’s a metaphor used to refer to a distraction designed to confuse people from the issue at hand.
The metaphor comes from a situation where Cobbett needed to distract some dogs from chasing rabbits in the English woods.
Cobbett’s chosen distraction was strong-smelling red herrings (the fish!). He put the strong-smelling fish out in the woods. The smell of the fish would overwhelm the smell of the rabbits, putting the dogs off the scent. The strong smell of the herring fish to distract dogs from chasing rabbits.
Today, we use the metaphor to explain any situation where someone tries to distract people from the true issue at hand.
Red Herring Fallacy Examples
1. What Aboutism
Scenario: A couple are arguing. One couple says “You never do the dishes!” The other says “What about you! You never take out the bins!”
This scenario is a red herring because the person who is being accused of not doing the dishes is trying to find a new piece of information that will distract the aggressor. This information is designed to start a different argument where there is more of a level playing field.
You will often find that red herrings allow the person who is defending themselves to blunt or subvert the original point. In doing so, they’re able to avoid accountability for their actions.
So, in this scenario, we can see that the person who doesn’t ever do the dishes isn’t responding to the point about their need to be more diligent. Instead, they decide to attack from a different angle, and haven’t made a serious attempt at addressing their own behavior.
2. Tone Policing
Scenario: A woman is arguing that she should get a payrise. Her boss responds that he won’t discuss her payrise until she stops being so shrill.
Tone policing occurs when someone doesn’t address the substance of someone’s argument but rather addresses the tone with which it is expressed.
It has been historically been used by some men against women to highlight tropes about women being shrill or overly emotional. For example, a boss (or even a bad husband!) might accuse a woman of being shrill when she tries to stand up for herself and her perspective.
Similarly, you might find someone who doesn’t like a female politician because she sounds “shrill” or “whiney”. Often, this is a red herring that distracts us from the substance of the politician’s comments and works to sustain the political glass ceiling.
3. Climate Change
Scenario: One political party says we should do more in the USA about climate change. The other party says that we should try to get China to do more before the USA spends another dime on the issue.
This is a scenario we’ve seen played out many times on television. Whereas the first person is arguing that we must take personal responsibility for our carbon emissions, the other person is saying “but what about them!” and pointing at someone else.
China, in this situation (and sometimes India) act as shields for the second person. They can argue that action is not their responsibility because they’re not the most egregious actors. But this argument is also a red herring because it distracts the argument away from “how can we do better?” to a debate about whether other people are doing enough.
As with many other red herring examples on this list, we can see that the red herring’s purpose is to shift accountability and re-frame the debate to terms more favorable to the person creating the red herring.
4. “You Should Just be Grateful”
Scenario: Women march for their rights on the streets. The Prime Minster of the country stands up in parliament and argues these women should be grateful they live in a country where they can protest peacefully.
This is a true scenario from Australia, where the Prime Minister of the country was accused of creating a red herring. Instead of engaging with the concerns women were expressing on the streets, he told them they should be grateful that they are able to protest at all:
“Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with [arms], but not here in this country.”
This common trope of “don’t complain because you should be grateful” is a classic red herring. It dismisses people’s point of view and their legitimate concerns by bringing up other tangential but less relevant points that are designed to muddy the waters.
5. Lawyer’s Distraction
Scenario: A lawyer is presenting her case in court during a murder trial. The lawyer stands up in front of the jury and says, ‘the defendant is guilty of an egregious crime, he attacked his wife not with a hammer, but with a chainsaw.’
Based on the lawyer’s statement, is this information helpful in proving her case that the person is guilty or not?
The lawyer is attempting to argue that the person is guilty. But by looking at the above statement, the argument appears to be that the choice of weapon is more important than the act itself.
This is not relevant to the main question of whether the person is guilty, and diverts the jury’s attention from the main issue by raising other pieces of information. We can see then that the lawyer’s statement is guilty of the red herring logical fallacy.
6. Businessman’s Distraction
Scenario: A manager is announcing to his staff that they will be moving business locations, and there will be job losses as a result. The manager says to his team, “We will be moving our business to Mexico. Some jobs will be lost, but Mexico has incredible weather and beautiful beaches.”
The statement starts off fine by mentioning that jobs will be lost as a result of the move. The last part of the statement that mentions Mexico’s beautiful beaches is clearly meant to divert from the central issue that people will lose their jobs.
The employee, who is against the move, might respond: “That’s a red herring! Don’t distract us from the fact that you’ll pay us less in Mexico! And I can’t just move!”
7. Father’s Distraction
Scenario: A father and his son are having a conversation about the difficulties of earning a living in today’s economy. The son says to his father, “I can hardly make ends meet with my salary, I might need to find a better paying job.” The father responds, “you think it’s difficult to earn a living on your salary, when I was young, I only made $3 an hour!”
This is a red herring fallacy because what the father used to make when he was young is irrelevant from the discussion of being able to earn a living in today’s economy, and the fact that the son may need to find a higher paying job.
This red herring is a complete distraction from the son’s struggle right now, and takes the discussion off topic toward something that’s not constructive for the son’s problem.
8. Professor’s Distraction
Scenario: A teacher’s assistant is grading student essays. The teacher’s assistant is discussing grading papers with the professor and says, “we should grade these papers on a curve, that would be the fair thing to do. Classes tend to go better when the students are happier with their grades.”
The fact that classes go better when students are happier with their grades has nothing to do with it being fair to grade students’ essays on a curve.
A hard-headed education leader might push back on the professor, telling him that the students’ happiness is not an appropriate reason for artificially raising the students’ grades. The happiness of the students is the red herring, whereas the true concern should be about how much (and how well) the students have learned the subject matter.
This is also a false dilemma because there is an either/or assumption: either students get high grades or they are unhappy.
9. Politician’s Distraction
Scenario: A politician is asked about corruption in his party. The politician responds by saying, “There was a little issue of corruption last year, but look at how much more corrupt they are in Russia!”
This second piece of information is completely irrelevant to the actual question that was asked regarding corruption in the politician’s party. It’s used to distract the interviewer from the issue at hand, which isn’t a particularly comfortable topic to talk about for the politician.
Red herrings are regularly used by politicians during interviews. They will do whatever they can to change the topic from things that make them look bad. When their weaknesses are identified, the politicians will often introduce something else in the discussion to distract and confuse people.
10. Husband’s Distraction
Scenario: A couple are fighting because of the mess in their house. The wife says, “you’re such a slob, you always leave your things all over the place and never clean up!” The husband responds with, “well, you never pull your car all the way into the driveway!”
The husband’s response has nothing to do with his wife’s statement about him being messy. Instead, his response about her not parking all the way in the driveway is meant to distract or divert the attention from him, and the main topic that he is messy.
Red herrings are very commonly utilized in personal arguments, but they tend to escalate the arguments rather than solve them. The argument becomes a mud-flinging contest that’s no longer about the issue at hand, but is about all the relationship touch-points that the husband or wife can think about to deflect blame to the other person.
11. Employee’s Distraction
Scenario: Jane works at an investment firm. On one occasion, Jane lost her client a lot of money through a bad investment. To distract from her mistake, Jane says “The client was going broke anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”
In this scenario, Jane has tried to create a diversion from the true concern (that she lost her client money) by trying to focus instead on how the client was probably going to be bankrupt. While this could be true, the purpose of her mentioning it is to relieve her of her blame.
Introducing this new piece of information may be tangentially relevant, but draws the conversation away from the issue of Jane needing to be accountable; and instead draws the conversation toward a topic that takes the heat of Jane.
12. A Parenting Trick
Scenario: Jack’s son Sam was mad at him because he lost Sam’s bicycle. To get out of the situation, Jack dragged a scooter out of the garage and said “scooters are better than bikes, anyway.”
In this situation, Jack tries to get out of trouble by changing the discussion from “how dare you lose my bicycle!” to “are scooters better than bicycles?” This is a typical red herring because it’s a trick used by someone to distract and deflect blame.
Parents tend to use this trick a lot in order to distract their young children. It helps to stop kids from crying and get them to be more well-behaved. Children are easy to be distracted, so they’re particularly susceptible to red herring distractions.
13. Boyfriend’s Distraction
Scenario: Sally is asking Sam why he decided to buy a bunch of junk food when they had agreed to try to save money. Sam’s response is that Sally bought a new video game last week so she shouldn’t be criticizing him.
We could empathize with both Sally and Sam here. Sam feels attacked for buying junk food. But Sally also wants to encourage Sam to save money. To soften and undermine Sally’s argument, Sam introduces new information: Sally’s made mistakes, too!
Of course, the conversation here isn’t about whether Sally has made mistakes before (of course she has!). Rather, it’s about Sam’s current mistake. Nevertheless, by introducing this old news about Sally’s mistake into the discussion, Sam feels like he can be vindicated and take the heat off himself.
14. Another Political Distraction
Scenario: A politician is asked to explain why the unemployment rate has risen despite implementing their policies. The politician replies, “I have been working incredibly hard since I entered office, and I think the citizens can see this.”
In this scenario, the politician directly avoids answering the question by simply talking about how hard he works. Here, he looks to abandon the problem or question of high unemployment rates and answers with an irrelevant point.
Whether the politician works hard is irrelevant to unemployment rates. A good journalist would identify that the politician has introduced a red herring. They might respond by keeping the discussion on topic. They might respond with: “You can work hard all you like, but where are your results?” This would acknowledge the red herring then return the politician back to the question at hand.
15. The Credit Card Company
Scenario: A disgruntled customer calls up their credit card company to cancel their card due to poor customer service. The phone attendant says “but did you know we just introduced a new line of credit cards that reduce fees?”
Companies are often guilty of red herring fallacies on the phone. You try to call to get one issue addressed, and they’re only interested in distracting and diverting you in order to get you to spend more money.
In this situation, the representative doesn’t want to solve the customer’s problem. They’re more concerned with talking about different things that distract from the main discussion. Rather than engaging with the fact the customer service has been bad and attempting to resolve the problem, the agent wants to get the customer to sign up for yet another service.
Here, the red herring has been coopted as a sales technique that’s designed to both get customers to forget about the original problem and to divert attention away from the issue so the company doesn’t have to resolve it.
- Slippery Slope Fallacy Examples
- Straw Man Fallacy Examples
- Hasty Generalization Examples
- 21 Types of Heuristics
- Fundamental Attribution Error Examples
- Equivocation Fallacy Examples
- Bandwagon Fallacy Examples
As we’ve seen by looking at the examples of red herrings in arguments and discussions, people regularly use red herring’s when they want to abandon the topic being discussed.
The use of red herring is an effective way to divert the person’s attention to a different subject, and oftentimes people are unaware that information is being presented to divert their attention.
By understanding how the red herring fallacy functions in discussions and arguments, it makes it easier to spot when someone uses a red herring, and is avoiding answering the question.