Red herrings are often used in political discourse, as well as in everyday casual conversations. If you’re ever in a discussion and you feel like the person you’re talking to is trying to distract you with topics that have nothing to do with what you’re discussing, chances are you’re being baited with a red herring.
In this blog post, we’ll look at some examples of red herrings so you can learn to spot them when they come up in your life. By becoming familiar with this logical fallacy, you can arm yourself against being pulled into fruitless arguments by others.
Red Herring Examples From The Real World
William Cobbett popularized the term Red Herring in 1807 as a bedtime story, but people started using them in real life. Here are three examples of red herrings in arguments from the real world.
Example Involving Politicians
The first example of a red herring we’ll look at comes from the world of politics. Here, we have two politicians arguing about what should be done about gun control in America. Politician A argues that guns should be banned outright, while Politician B believes there should be stricter background checks for people who want to purchase firearms.
During the debate, Politician A starts talking about how Politician B’s stance on abortion is anti-woman. This completely throws Politician B off because they weren’t expecting the conversation to veer off into such territory. Now instead of debating gun control, they’re on the defensive about their personal beliefs on abortion.
This was politician A’s intention all along; by bringing up an unrelated topic, they could change the conversation’s focus and put Politician B on the back foot.
Example Involving Corporations
Let’s say you’re out to dinner with friends and the topic of genetically modified foods comes up. You express your opinion that GMO foods are dangerous and should be banned, but one of your friends disagrees.
Rather than engaging you in a thoughtful discussion about why they believe GMO foods are safe, they start talking about how organic food is overpriced and not worth the money.
Your friend has just committed a red herring fallacy because they’ve changed the subject from GMOs to organics without addressing your argument. Now you’re stuck debating whether or not organic food is worth the cost instead of whether or not GMO foods are safe. All because your friend didn’t want to talk about GMOs in the first place.
Example Involving People
Here’s a classic example of a red herring that happens all too often in relationships. Let’s say your partner does something that upsets you, and instead of apologizing, they start listing all the things you have done wrong to make you feel guilty, so they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions.
- “I’m sorry I didn’t call when I said I would, but I was busy at work.”
- “Well, I’m sorry I had to work late too. But unlike you, I called to let you know.”
Sound familiar? If so, chances are good you’ve been on the receiving end of this type of deflective behavior before. When somebody does something wrong and tries to make you feel bad about it, they don’t have to own up to their mistakes.
Red Herring Example From Sherlock Holmes
One famous example of a red herring fallacy comes from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the story “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes investigates a case in which a man has been lured away from his job by an advertisement in the newspaper.
The ad promised him a better-paying position with the “Red-Headed League.” However, when Holmes looks into the matter, he discovers no such organization. The whole thing was a hoax designed to keep the man from his job so that someone else could break into the bank where he worked.
How To Spot A Red Herring
Here are some tips on spotting a red herring so you can call it out the next time you encounter one.
Look For Information That’s Irrelevant Or Tangential
One of the most obvious ways to spot a red herring is to look for information that doesn’t address the issue. People use it for diverting attention from personal attacks, side points, or tangential stories that have nothing to do with the topic under discussion.
For example, imagine you’re arguing with your roommate about who should do the dishes. If they start talking about how messy your bedroom is, they’re probably trying to redirect the conversation away from doing the dishes.
Pay Attention To What’s Missing
Another way to identify a red herring is by looking at what’s not being said. This usually happens when someone brings up an opponent’s past behavior or questionable actions as evidence in an argument but fails to mention their own.
For example, let’s say you’re caught speeding and try to get out of paying the ticket by pointing out that everyone sometimes speeds—including the police officer who pulled you over. While it’s true that people always break the law, this argument completely sidesteps your responsibility for breaking the law in this particular instance.
Be Wary Of Extreme Statements
Be careful of anyone who tries to support their argument with grandiose statements or “facts” from made-up experts. These types of Hail Marys are often used as a last-ditch effort to win an argument, and more often than not.
If someone tells you that vaccinations cause autism and their only source is a book written by a “famous doctor,” chances are they’re pulling a fast one on you.
The same goes for statements like “everyone knows X” or “studies show Y.” In reality, there is no such thing as common knowledge, and any reputable study will have been conducted by impartial researchers and peer-reviewed before being published.
Now that you know what red herrings are and how to spot them, try paying attention to see if you can catch people using them in your everyday life. You might be surprised by how often these fallacies crop up—in formal debates, arguments, and casual conversations. Once you start looking for them, red herrings will be everywhere!
Holds a degree in Literature from the University of Utah and has been writing for more than 10 years.