Red Herring

In an argument, a red herring can be any diversion that distracts attention from the main issue. The name of this distracter comes from a very strong-smelling cured fish that was once used, variously, to distract bloodhounds from the scent of escaping prisoners, or to distract hunting dogs from the trail of their prey.

The diversion usually takes the form of an irrelevant topic, which is designed to lead attention away from the real issue and onto another topic. Typically, someone who is on the defensive end of an argument will use a red herring to change the subject from one he is not comfortable with to one he feels he can win with. A red herring fallacy looks like this:

1. There is discussion of issue A.

2. There is introduction of issue B (irrelevant to issue A, but pretending to be relevant).

3. Issue A is forgotten and issue B becomes the focal point.


"Nuclear power is a necessity, even though it has the potential to be dangerous. You know what is really dangerous, though? Bathtubs. More people die in accidents in their bathtubs every year than you can imagine."

Where is the red herring? Here is issue A: Nuclear power is a necessity, even though it has the potential to be dangerous. Next, issue B is introduced, which is not relevant to issue A: Bathtubs are really dangerous. Then, we hear more about issue B, and issue A is forgotten.

The speaker in this example may be uncomfortable discussing the potential dangers of nuclear power and/or she wants to lessen their impact by talking instead about the dangers of bathtubs. In either case, she has used a red herring, a distracter, to leave the issue she does not want to talk about. Simply, she has changed the subject.

Red herrings work well when the distracter is something that many people will agree with, or when it seems to be closely related to the issue at hand. In the first instance, you might throw in a comment about how no one likes paying higher taxes or working longer hours. Who would disagree? For example, "Our new boss does seem to be getting the job done. But, how about those longer hours? Are you happy about your new work schedule? You have less time with your family and you are not making any more money than before." The speaker here diverted attention away from the good job being done by his boss, and onto the topic of longer working hours.

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