The idiom ‘red herring’ is used to refer to something that misleads or distracts from the relevant or important issue. The expression is mainly used to assert that an argument is not relevant to the issue being discussed.
A red herring fallacy is an error in logic where a proposition is, or is intended to be, misleading in order to make irrelevant or false inferences. It includes any logical inference based on fake arguments, intended to replace the lack of real arguments or to replace implicitly the subject of the discussion. In this way, a red herring is as much a debating tactic as it is a logical fallacy. It is a fallacy of distraction, and is committed when a listener attempts to divert an arguer from his argument by introducing another topic. Such arguments have the following form:
Topic A is under discussion.
Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of reasoning is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.
For instance, ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ or ‘I have a right to my opinion’ is a common declaration in rhetoric or debate that can be made at some point in a discussion. Whether one has a particular entitlement or right is irrelevant to whether one’s assertion is true or false. To assert the existence of the right is a failure to assert any justification for the opinion.
As an informal fallacy, the red herring falls into a broad class of relevance fallacies. Unlike the strawman fallacy, which is premised on a distortion of the other party’s position, the red herring is a seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant, diversionary tactic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a red herring may be intentional or unintentional – it does not necessarily mean a conscious intent to mislead.
Conventional wisdom has long supposed the origin of the idiom ‘red herring’ to be the use of a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to train hounds to follow a scent, or to divert them from the correct route when hunting; however, modern linguistic research suggests that the term was probably invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, referring to one occasion on which he had supposedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare, and was never an actual practice of hunters. The phrase was later borrowed to provide a formal name for the logical fallacy and associated literary device.
Although Cobbett most famously mentioned it, he was not the first to consider red herring for scenting hounds; an earlier reference occurs in the pamphlet ‘Nashe’s Lenten Stuffe’, published in 1599 by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, in which he says ‘Next, to draw on hounds to a scent, to a red herring skin there is nothing comparable’.
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