The Verbal Cheap Shot Artist Part Nine: The Red Herring

This is part nine of a 12 week series where I explore the tactics of verbal cheap shot artists – people who can’t, or won’t use valid arguments to present their case, but instead resort to verbal cheap shots. To make sure you don’t miss a single article, be sure and sign up for my RSS feed or subscribe by email (both are free!) so you can get the freshest new articles! Check out my other posts in the Verbal Cheap Shots category.

The red herring is much like other verbal fallacies – it relies on distraction as its main strength. The phrase “red herring” is thought to have originated from the use of smoked herring fish to distract dogs following a scent trail. The herring’s strong smell could obscure the real trail and lay a false one.

Using an ad hominem attacks could be considered a red herring since it tries to deflect attention away from the real issue and focus it on a person. The straw man argument could also be considered another form of a red herring.

Examples of red herrings

  • The governor’s tax policies may not be good for the state, but he’s getting a free pass with all his marital “indiscretions” that are being ignored by the media. Real issue – tax policy, red herring – marital indiscretions.
  • You really should consider investing in my favorite mutual fund. The return isn’t that great but they use their profits in such great ways to benefit mankind. Real issue – poor returns, red herring – how they invest profits.
  • Insurance fraud isn’t really much of a crime. Insurance companies make billions and my client shouldn’t be subjected to such a lengthy trial over a minor offense. Real issue – insurance fraud, red herring – insurance company profits.
  • My chemistry professor deserves to win the Nobel prize for his work in medicine. After all, he has donated so much of his time to helping people. Real issue – does the professor deserve the Nobel prize for his work in medicine, red herring – his work in helping people.

How to respond to the red herring

The best way is “what does THAT have to do with the real issue?” What does the governor’s marital indiscretions have to do with his tax policy? What does how a mutual fund use their profits have to do with their ability to generate a return I want? What do insurance company profits have to do with your client breaking the law? Why does a professor deserve a Nobel prize in chemistry or medicine because of his work in helping others? Answer to all of these? Nothing.

If none of these have anything to do with the real issue, why use them other than to distract from the real issue? Chances are, the real issue is relatively weak, otherwise the speaker wouldn’t have to resort to verbal cheap shots.

Red herrings pop up all over the place

  • Politicians use them to deflect attention away from unpopular policies.
  • Mystery writers use them to make you think someone is the bad guy when it’s actually someone else.
  • Football coaches use them to trick an opposing defense.
  • In Guatemala, I witnessed my host family using a red herring in bargaining sessions in the local market with shopkeepers. These folks were professionals!

Learn to recognize the red herring and avoid using it yourself, that is unless you’re trying to use the Chewbacca Defense.

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