The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy that takes place when a person introduces irrelevant information for the topic of the discussion. In this way he manages to distract the attention of all those involved to reach a conclusion that tilts the balance in his favor and that is generally irrelevant to the subject that was being discussed.
When we are victims of this fallacy it is normal that at the end of the discussion we experience a sense of frustration, even if we do not know very well why. That frustration comes from the fact that we have invested time and effort without achieving anything. In other cases we may feel angry because we feel that we have been duped.
Divert the attention from the important to discuss the inconsequential
The red herring fallacy owes its original name to an ancient custom according to which the strong smell emanating from the fish was used to distract the hunting dogs from their target and create a false trail. The hunters created on the ground a trace with the smell of herrings, if the dogs were not able to stay focused and follow the trail of the fox but followed the smell of the fish, and then it was considered that they were not good for hunting.
In interpersonal relations happens the same thing when you try to distort attention on the main topic. Obviously, the arguments that are introduced are valid, and that is the reason why the others allow themselves to be distracted. Basically, what happens is the following:
It is being discussed topic A, which is the issue to solve that concerns the most
– A person introduces topic B
– Topic A is abandoned to focus on topic B, which is not as urgent or important
An example of the red herring fallacy in action is when we make someone notice that his behavior has not been morally correct and this person responds by going around the bush:
– What you have done is not morally correct.
– And what exactly does morality mean?
– It is a behavioral code culturally established that indicates what is allowed and what is not.
– And who created that code of behavior?
And so the conversation could continue ad infinitum…
The objective of that person is to change the topic of the discussion, take it to an impersonal field, so as not to have to apologize for his behavior or repair the damage caused. If we follow the game by answering their questions, it is likely that we will end up submerged in a philosophical discussion or that we end up being the culprits when in fact we are the victim.
However, the red herring fallacy is not limited to the personal level but is also one of the preferred strategies of politicians and the media to divert social debates from important issues to less important arguments.
For example, if a political party is against the marriage between people of the same gender, it could argue arguments such as the fact that only 10% of these people want to marry and that, if they do, the marriage would have an 80% chance of failing. Although those figures were true, which they are not, they are really irrelevant for passing a law on this marriage.
However, by introducing these figures, the party “forces” us to conclude that it is not necessary to make a change in civil rights because there are very few people who could benefit from it. This distracts our attention from the truly essential: no matter how many people want to marry or the success that marriage will have, the issue is that all people should have the right to marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation.
For the chronicle, it is worth mentioning that during the first year that marriage between people of the same gender was approved in Spain, 4,500 couples were married but a decade later, were 31,600 couples to get married.
This means that we must be very careful with this fallacy in action because it can lead us to make bad decisions, causing us to devote very valuable resources to matters that really do not deserve it while the really important problems are not resolved.
In the context of the couple relationship, resorting continuously to the red herring fallacy for not assuming the responsibilities can be simply disastrous as the problems will accumulate, until a crisis ends the relationship.
How not to be fooled by the red herring fallacy?
At this point, many might suppose that it is easy to detect the red herring fallacy but in reality it is not, especially when we are immersed in a heated discussion or on a significant topic that has an emotional resonance. In these cases, the most usual thing is that we end up following the false and irrelevant lead.
However, recognizing this fallacy is fundamental, either to assess the information that the media make us reach as to relate to the others, especially if they are manipulative people. How to protect ourselves from this fallacy?
First of all, it is essential not to fall victim to the ego, which means not wanting to win at all costs. Many times we follow the false trail because our goal is not to reach an agreement or a solution but to win the discussion. Being humble and emotionally mature will allow us to stay focused on our main objective.
Then, the key lies in distancing yourself for a moment before preparing your counter-argument and thinking if what you have just said is relevant to the topic of the discussion. If you do not think so, just say it and take up the main theme.