This is when we changes the subject or give an irrelevant response to distract.
1) Bob: You really shouldn’t charge them 30% on their loans. It’s unethical.
Mean Dan: Well, someone else would charge that rate if I didn’t.
*Explanation: The fact that someone else would do it is irrelevant to whether it is ethical.
- John: KIPP Schools work. Their students score higher on standardized tests, demonstrate emotional intelligence, and get admitted into the best colleges. We should support KIPP Schools. Mary: Well, I think education should teach people to intrinsically love learning.
*Explanation: Mary is presenting very general ideas about education without responding to the arguments in favor of KIPP Schools.
- Theist: There must be a God or something transcendent because there is a common transcultural core to all mystical experiences.
Agnostic or atheist: Well, I just think religious people are hypocrites and that religion does more harm than good.
*Explanation: Whether religious folk are hypocrites or whether religion is harmful is irrelevant to whether mystical experiences are good evidence for the existence of God.
Some have suggested the red herring fallacy is derived from the practice of dragging smelly fish (i.e. red herring) along the ground to distract dogs in pursuit of a fox. The dogs with the best noses and training would avoid the red herring scent and continue pursuing the fox. The inferior dogs would pursue the smelly herring instead of the fox.
Whatever its history, this fishy story is a nice way to visualize what happens in the red herring fallacy. We are sometimes like those deceived dogs, being led astray by interesting, but irrelevant, ideas.
You may have noticed the red herring is very similar to the straw man fallacy. This is because both fallacies arise when we avoid the original argument either through misrepresentation (i.e. straw man) or by changing the subject (i.e. red herring).
How to avoid
Repeat and paraphrase your opponent’s argument before responding to it. That is, carefully listen before responding.
Also, If you ever feel tempted to change the topic because you have an inadequate response to an argument, simply say, “I need to think about that argument more” instead of presenting a red herring in the guise of a real response.
Of course, this is easier said than done because we are sometimes prideful and want to win the argument now. Therefore, perhaps the best way to avoid this and other fallacies is to be humble and emotionally mature.
When studying Philosophy, it is also important to remember that some of the most fundamental and philosophical questions often have contradictory answers, both of which are supported by equally valid arguments (Kant). For example, the question of whether the universe has a beginning or is infinite may be one such question. I may have a sound argument for a beginning thesis, and you for the infinite thesis. When good reasoning leads to contradictory answers, we should dig deeper and perhaps question Reason itself. In short, it is not always a red herring for someone to ignore your argument and present an equally valid and opposing argument. We need to be sensitive to the context of debate to determine whether the red herring fallacy is at work.
Perhaps the best one can do to avoid this fallacy (and all fallacies) is to humbly and carefully listen to opposing arguments and directly respond to the premises or inference of those arguments.
- Give an example of a straw man and red herring fallacy. Explain their similarities and differences.
- Answers will vary. See above examples and discussion. The bottom line changing the subject is not the same as misrepresenting an argument.