Tag Archives: red herring

Consent to risk fallacy

A common argument against counter-terrorism measures is that more people are killed each year by road accidents than by terrorists.  Whilst this statistic may be true, it is a false analogy and a red herring argument against counter-terrorism. It also ignores the fact that counter-terrorism deters and prevents more terrorist attacks than those that are eventually carried out.

This fallacious argument can be generalised as follows: ‘More people are killed by (fill-in-the-blank) than by terrorists, so why should we worry about terrorism?’  In recent media debates, the ‘blank’ has included not only road accidents, but also deaths from falling fridges and bathtub drownings.  However, for current purposes let us assume that more people do die from road accidents than would have died from either prevented or successful terrorist attacks.

Whenever we travel in a car, almost everybody is aware that there is a small but finite risk of being injured or killed.  Yet this risk does not keep us away from cars.  We intuitively make an informal risk assessment that the level of this risk is acceptable in the circumstances.  In other words, we consent to take the risk of travelling in cars, because we decide that the low level of risk of an accident does not outweigh the benefits of car transport.

On the other hand, in western countries we do not consent to take the risk of being murdered by terrorists, unless we deliberately decide to visit a terrorist-prone area like Syria, northern Iraq or the southern Philippines.  A terrorist attack could occur anywhere in the West, so unlike the road accident analogy, there is no real choice a citizen can make to consent or not consent to the risk of a terrorist attack.

The Consent to risk fallacy omits this critical factor of choice from the equation, so the analogy between terrorism and road accidents is false.



Filed under Logical fallacies

‘I’m entitled to my opinion’

(An edited version of this article was published in
“The Skeptic” Vol 37, No. 2, June 2017)

The claim ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ or ‘I have a right to my opinion’ is a logical fallacy in which a person attempts to reject objections to their argument by claiming that they are entitled to their opinion.  This claim is usually uttered by people in disagreement when they have hit the wall in defending their point on its merits. It is a last ditch rhetorical device that attempts to rescue their position by defending their right to hold an opinion, no matter how ill-founded or wrong that opinion might be.

The claim exemplifies a red herring. The right to have an opinion is not what is in dispute. Whether one has a particular entitlement or right is irrelevant to whether one’s opinion is true or false. To assert the existence of the right is a failure to provide any justification for the content of the opinion. The claim also implies that all opinions are equal, which exemplifies the relativist fallacy.[1]

The entitlement claim would be relevant only if it guaranteed the truth of your opinions. But it can’t do that, because it is an entitlement supposedly enjoyed by everybody. And people disagree.  Two debaters are both entitled to their contradictory opinions about a given issue, but they can’t both be right. [2] So insisting that you are entitled to your opinion cannot possibly give you any logical advantage in a debate.


[1] The relativist fallacy, also known as the subjectivist fallacy, is claiming that something is true for one person but not true for someone else. The fallacy rests on the law of noncontradiction. The fallacy applies only to objective facts, or what are alleged to be objective facts, rather than to personal tastes or subjective experiences.

[2] In classical logic, the law of non-contradiction (LNC) is the second of the three classic laws of thought. It states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions ‘A is B’ and ‘A is not B’ are mutually exclusive.


Harding, Tim ‘Who needs to Know?’ The Skeptic magazine, September 2015, Vol 36 No 3 p.36.

Stokes, Patrick., ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’. The Conversation. October 5, 2012.

Whyte, Jamie (August 9, 2004). ‘Sorry, but you are not entitled to your opinion’. The Times. News UK.


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Association fallacy

An association fallacy is a faulty generalisation which asserts that the qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another, merely via an irrelevant association.  Association fallacies come in various shapes and sizes; but most of them are a type of red herring fallacy that introduces irrelevant premises into an argument and draws an invalid conclusion.

The formal structure of the association fallacy is:

Premise 1: A is a B

Premise 2: A is also a C

Conclusion:  Therefore, all Bs are Cs.

The fallacy in the argument can be illustrated through the use of the following Euler diagram: ‘A’ satisfies the requirement that it is part of both sets ‘B’ and ‘C’, but if one represents this as an Euler diagram, it can clearly be seen that it is possible that a part of set ‘B’ is not part of set ‘C’, refuting the conclusion that ‘all Bs are Cs’.

An example of the association fallacy is the argument ‘All dogs have four legs; my cat has four legs. Therefore, my cat is a dog.’ Another example is where some atheists oppose the idea of free will simply because Christians believe in it.  (This is despite the fact that prominent atheists such as Professor Daniel Dennett also believe in free will).

Special cases of this fallacy include guilt by association, or conversely honour by association. Guilt by association can sometimes be a type of ad hominem fallacy, if the argument attacks a person because of the similarity between the views of someone making an argument and other proponents of the same argument.  An example would be ‘My opponent for office just received an endorsement from the Puppy Haters Association. Is that the sort of person you would want to vote for?  In this way, appeals to emotion can also be included for added rhetorical effect.

A form of the association fallacy often used by those denying a well-established scientific or historical proposition is the so-called ‘Galileo Gambit.’ The argument goes that since Galileo was ridiculed in his time but later acknowledged to be right, that since their non-mainstream views are provoking ridicule and rejection from other scientists, they too will later be recognized as correct.

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The Red Herring Fallacy

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 opinion 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.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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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