Red Herring Fallacy

Red Herring Fallacy – Definition

A Red Herring Fallacy occurs when someone introduces a point or idea that’s way off the trail from the discussion at hand. Think of it like being at a soccer match where everyone should be focused on the game, but suddenly someone starts talking about a totally different sport like badminton. It’s a distraction, a way to throw everyone off the main event—the soccer game. This diversion trick is used in conversations to steer away from a subject that may be sticky or uncomfortable for someone by bringing up a separate topic that isn’t relevant.

To put it another way, imagine you’re building a puzzle. You’re expecting a certain kind of piece that fits with the rest, but then you get a piece from a completely different puzzle. This out-of-place piece is the “Red Herring.” It’s a distraction that doesn’t fit with the original puzzle, just like the Red Herring fallacy doesn’t fit with the original topic. In stories or movies, notably in the mystery genre, Red Herrings are used to purposely lead the audience to false conclusions, making the ending more shocking or suspenseful when the real answer is finally revealed.

Red Herring Argument Structure

In a Red Herring Fallacy, there are typically two parts:

A person starts a conversation with something specific in mind, known as “Argument A.” They might be talking about a problem that needs solving or a question that requires an answer.

However, the second person doesn’t feel like tackling Argument A. Instead, they shift the focus to a completely different topic, which we’ll label as “Argument B.” This causes the original point to get lost in the shuffle.

An everyday example could be a discussion about responsibility for household chores:

A parent might ask, “Who left this mess in the kitchen?”

The child, not wanting to take responsibility, might answer with, “You know, we should really get a dog; they’re great company.” Here, the child introduces a new topic to steer the conversation away from admitting fault.

The Red Herring in Politics and Media

Public figures like politicians and celebrities are quite skilled at using the Red Herring Fallacy. They often face tough questions and scrutiny, so when they find themselves in a tight spot, they might redirect attention to avoid embarrassment or to hide their lack of knowledge.

For instance, President Trump, during his campaign, was questioned about problematic remarks he made. But rather than addressing the issue, he switched to talking about the threat of terrorism. His response diverted everyone’s attention to a matter of national safety, which is a subject capable of stirring strong feelings and taking the spotlight off the original question.

For a lighter take, the “Family Guy” TV show depicts the Red Herring Fallacy in an exaggerated form for comedy’s sake, which you can check out with the provided link. It shows how a Red Herring can completely derail a dialogue into absurd territory.

And the concept isn’t a modern invention; it has been used since at least 1807 in political circles. Even the writings of Shakespeare in “King Lear” involve characters who distract from the central plot, acting as Red Herrings to throw readers off the scent.

The Red Herring in Film and Literature

Mystery fans might be familiar with the suspect named Barrymore in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a Sherlock Holmes story. Barrymore is painted as a likely culprit, but in the end, is proven innocent. This technique keeps audiences questioning and on the edge of their seats.

Another example is Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” series. Snape is treated with suspicion throughout the saga, leading many to believe he’s a villain. Yet, in the final book, the true nature of his actions is disclosed, surprising those who followed the narrative closely.

Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” features a character named Bishop Aringarosa, whose name roughly translates to “red herring.” This is a clever nod by the author to the role that character plays within the mystery of the story’s plot.

How to Not Fall for the Red Herring Argument

Being aware of the Red Herring tactic improves our chances of not getting tricked by it. When participating in a dialogue or debate, maintain your focus on the main issue, even if the other person tries to lure you away with something more intriguing or urgent. Return to the original subject and request a clear answer to the initial question. Over time, if someone consistently uses Red Herrings to dodge topics, others will likely catch on and become skeptical of their responses.

Related Topics and Explanations

  • Straw Man Fallacy: This is like creating a straw puppet that resembles someone’s argument but isn’t the real thing. Then, the person attacks this fake argument instead of the original one. It’s done to misrepresent what someone is saying to make it easier to argue against.
  • Ad Hominem Fallacy: This occurs when the focus is turned away from the argument to the person making it. Instead of discussing the actual issue, a person criticizes the opponent’s character or other personal attributes, which aren’t relevant to the logic of the argument.
  • Slippery Slope Fallacy: In this type of fallacy, a person suggests that a relatively small step will lead to a chain of related events culminating in some significant, oftentimes negative, effect. The fallacy lies in the lack of clear and logical steps connecting the initial small act to the exaggerated end result.


In conclusion, the Red Herring Fallacy is slick trickery where a completely off-topic issue is thrown into a discussion to draw everyone away from the original talking point. It interrupts the flow like an odd, red piece appearing in a blue-themed jigsaw puzzle, and it’s employed skillfully in arguments, politics, the media, and even in captivating storylines to evade tricky questions. By recognizing and understanding this tactic, you become better equipped to stick with the primary topic of discourse. Stay alert for these “red puzzle pieces,” and keep the conversation from wandering off course.