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What is The red herring?

When the hounds are intent on following a scent of their own choosing, in preference to that selected by the master of the hunt, a red herring is used to effect the transfer. Tied to a length of string, it is led across the trail the hounds are following. Its powerful aroma is sufficient to make them forget what they were following, and to take up its trail instead. The red herring is then skilfully drawn onto the trail which the hunt-master prefers.

In logic the red herring is drawn across the trail of an argument. It is so smelly and so strong that the participants are led irresistibly in its wake, forgetting their original goal. The fallacy of the red herring is committed whenever irrelevant material is used to divert people away from the point being made, and to proceed towards a different conclusion.

‘The police should stop environmental demonstrators from inconveniencing the general public. We pay our taxes. ‘

‘Surely global meltdown is infinitely worse than a little inconvenience?’

(It may well be, but that particularly ripe and smelly fish is not the one we were following.)

 

The use of the red herring is fallacious because it uses irrelevant material to prevent a conclusion being reached in its absence. If the argument leads in a particular direction because reason and evidence are taking it there, it is not valid to divert it by means of extraneous material, however attractive that new material may be.

 

‘Excuse me, sir. What are you doing with that diamond necklace hanging out of your pocket?’

‘I say, isn’t that a purebred German shepherd dog you have with you?’

(Even if the policeman is put off the scent, the dog won’t be.)

 

The more the red herring appears to follow the original trail for a little way, the more attractive it is to follow, and the more effective it will be at diverting attention.

 

‘Publicans always try to promote whatever makes them most profit’
‘I think these fashions come and go. One time they will promote beer because they think that is where the demand is; but a year o later it might be cask-conditioned ale. ‘

(The attraction here is that it smells a little like the original trail. It talks about what publicans promote, but after following this one for an hour or two, the talkers will be as much fuddled by the argument as by the beer.)

 

Red herrings are used by those who have a bad case, and can feel the hounds getting uncomfortably close to it. Politicians under pressure will toss out so tempting a red herring that the dogs will turn after it, even in the act of leaping for the kill.

Lawyers scatter them at the feet of juries to divert attention away from crooked clients. Every famous attorney has been credited with the trick of putting a wire through his cigar so that, instead of listening to the details of his weak case, the jurors watch with bated breath as the ash grows longer and longer. The red herring in this case is a visual one, like the salesman’s illuminated bow tie which diverts attention away from his inferior product.

‘You never remember my birthday.’

‘Did I ever tell you what beautiful eyes you have?’

 

You should never set out upon a weak argument without a pocketful of red herrings to sustain you through the course of it. As your intellectual energies begin to fail, your supply of them will give you breathing space. If you aspire to the ranks of the experts you should select your red herrings on the basis of the known interests of your audience. Every pack has its favourite aroma; and your red herrings should be chosen with that in mind. As you toss them out as needed, the audience will be unable to resist their favourite bait. You can gain respite in the most difficult situations by skilfully introducing the subject of the arguer’s bad back, or even his summer holidays. In real desperation you can bring up his pet cat.