I have to be upfront about something, readers: I have never
really cared for seafood.
Maybe it’s living too far from the ocean to get the freshest
stuff, maybe I’ve just never had it prepared right, but “fishy” is not a
positive adjective in my book.
But there’s one fish I especially can’t stand: The red
herring. Red herrings are not only bad taste, they are also bad thought.
Wait, are we still talking about fish?
You see what I did there?
THE FALLACY: Red Herring
A red herring can function as either a logical fallacy or a
literary device. Here, I’ve used it in the latter sense, but both things
function the same way: They’re designed to draw attention from one line of
inquiry into another one more favorable to the interlocutor.
Examples abound! More often than not, when someone is being
interviewed and they “dodge the question,” they do so by throwing out a red
herring. It’s a favorite tactic of officials during Congressional hearings,
politicians on the campaign trail, coaches and athletes who aren’t trying to
give away any sensitive information about their teams, and anyone else who’s
been trained in how to talk to journalists. Red herrings are an extremely
effective dodge, because to the untrained, non-spotter, they can redirect the
conversation entirely. Suddenly, we’re not talking about the thing you wanted
to know about, we’re talking about the thing I would like to talk about
WHY IT’S WRONG
Red herrings are wrong because they’re not directed at the
conversation at hand. They’re used to escape accountability, reframe
conversations in more favorable terms, or just outright distract from the subject
at hand. They are the refuge of someone who knows they’ve been logically
HOW TO CONFRONT THE FALLACY
Remember a couple key phrases – namely, “That doesn’t answer
the question” and “We’re not talking about X, we’re talking about Y,” where X
is the red herring they’ve brought up and Y is the thing they’re avoiding.
Until next time … keep thinking!