Also Known as: Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase
A Red Herring is a rhetorical technique in which an irrelevant topic is presented to divert attention from the original issue. This tactic is commonly used when a person wants to avoid an embarrassing, unpleasant or damaging subject. For example, a politician being questioned about a scandal might use a Red Herring to get reporters to switch to a different subject.
As a bad faith fallacy, a red herring is an attempt to “win” an argument by diverting attention to another subject. A person can also commit the fallacy in good faith by being unaware that they are leading the argument off topic.
Presented as a fallacy of reasoning, it would have the following structure
Premise 1: Issue A is being discussed or argued.
Premise 2: B, which is not relevant to A, is introduced as if it were relevant to A.
Conclusion: Issue A has been resolved.
This is fallacious reasoning because diverting attention from the original issue does not resolve it.
The rhetorical Red Herring can be used in combination with other fallacies. For example, a Red Herring can be used with Moving the Goal Post to distract a target while the goal post is moved. It can also be used with a Gish Gallop to distract the target as the galloping continues. It can also be used with Appeal to Silence by asserting that the issue has been resolved because the distracted person is now silent on that issue.
Like most philosophers, I told my students that the “red herring” name came from a technique of training hunting dogs. The story was that a stinky fish would be dragged across the trail of whatever the dogs were being trained to hunt. If the dogs were distracted, they would fall for a red herring and fail the training exercise. It turns out that this story is not exactly true. Fortunately, the tale is just relevant to the name, not the fallacy itself.
A variant of the Red Herring is the Smokescreen. Like the Red Herring, its intent is to distract attention from the original issue, and it can be used for the same reasons as a Red Herring. The difference is that a Smokescreen involves piling on complexities and irrelevancies until the original issue is lost in the rhetorical smoke.
Like a Red Herring, a Smokescreen can be used in good or bad faith. Some people, such as philosophy professors, tend to pile on complexities and seeming irrelevancies without bad intentions. They might not even realize what they are doing.
When used in bad faith, the person knows they are trying to obscure the original issue in rhetorical smoke. In addition to the usual goal of distraction, the Smokescreen can be used as a defense. In this manner it functions like the military or police use of a smokescreen, to hide something (such as a ship or soldiers) from sight. Of course, the Smokescreen does not provide a true defense and hiding something behind the rhetorical smoke does not prove or disprove anything.
A Smokescreen can be used in conjunction with other fallacies. For example, someone might use a Smokescreen while engaged in a Gish Gallop. This could involve combining the methods: piling on complexities for the purposes of distracting the target and putting out so many claims and arguments that the target will be unable to reply. As with a Red Herring, it can also be combined with an Appeal to Silence, with the target’s failure to reply fallaciously taken as evidence that a claim is true.
Defense: When engaging someone, the main defense against a Red Herring or Smoke Screen is to stick with the original issue or subject and not allow the distraction to work. You can also point out the attempt and try to get back on topic.
If you are merely observing the Red Herring, the defense is to recognize that the issue has been switched without resolution. In the case of a Smokescreen, the defense is to recognize when someone is attempting to pile on complexities and irrelevancies. This can require knowledge of the subject, but sometimes the tactic is easy to spot (especially when the person spewing smoke is not knowledgeable).
Since it is normal for people to change topics in a conversation you should be careful to distinguish between a Red Herring and normal conversational drift. This involves considering the context and intent of the person who seems to be engaged in a Red Herring.
Some people are naturally inclined to pile on complexities and irrelevancies without any intention to commit a fallacy, and this can be addressed by trying to get them back on topic. If they are acting in good faith, they might cooperate.
It is also worth noting that a person might seem to be using a Smokescreen, but the complexities are unavoidable, and the seeming irrelevancies are relevant. In cases where someone is ignorant of a subject or has only a simple understanding, it is easy for them to think someone is using a Smokescreen when they are not.
“We admit that this bond measure is popular. But we also urge you to note that there are so many bond issues on this ballot that the whole thing is getting ridiculous.”
“You know, I’ve begun to think that there is some merit in the Republicans’ tax cut plan. I suggest that you come up with something like it, because If we Democrats are going to survive as a party, we have got to show that we are as tough-minded as the Republicans, since that is what the public wants.
“I think there is great merit in making the requirements stricter for the graduate students. I recommend that you support it, too. After all, we are in a budget crisis, and we do not want our salaries affected.”