Red Herrings

A red herring is an argument or assertion that is irrelevant to the subject under discussion, but is raised (intentionally or unintentionally) as a distraction or diversion. A red herring often seems significant at first glance, but usually its lack of genuine relevance is quite readily evident upon reflection. Unlike certain other logical fallacies, red herrings are typically not subtle mistakes in reasoning, but rather are fairly blatant assertions of an often rhetorically powerful but logically irrelevant point. Some of the most common types red herrings include:

  • Appeals to emotion: this is probably the most common red herring, and occurs when emotive words and phrases are used to cast some person, thing, or situation in a particular light, often either highly positive or highly negative. Emotive language is ubiquitous in persuasive written and verbal communication, and great care must be taken to separate out the actual argument (i.e. the set of reasons attempting to justify the conclusion) from the language used to express the argument (i.e. the particular nouns, adjectives, tone of voice, emphasis, implied connotations, etc). The former are relevant to the quality of the argument, while the latter are not. Words commonly used in emotive appeals include ‘rights’, ‘innocent’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘unhealthy’, ‘unnatural’, ‘controversial’, ‘magical’, ‘remarkable’, and many more.
  • Appeals to popularity: the mere fact that a view is popular is (in most cases) not a reason for regarding it to be true, since many false beliefs have been and continue to be popular. Appeals to popularity are quite common in advertising and political campaigns. A particularly famous example of an appeal to popularity can be found in the title of Elvis Presley’s ninth album: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
  • Weak analogy: an analogy is a way of explaining or understanding one thing in terms of another thing. An analogy establishes that a situation is, in some relevant sense, ‘like’ another, already known or understood situation, and therefore knowledge from the previous situation can be applied to the current one. Some analogies are better (or stronger) than others, and it is common for weak analogies to be used in an attempt to draw similarities between two cases which are in fact quite different, but where similarity would be rhetorically useful for the purpose of making a particular argument. Comparing a person to Adolf Hitler is a particularly common rhetorical tactic used to cast persons or ideas one dislikes in a strongly negative light. Often such comparisons are weak analogies because, though some superficial or peripheral similarities to Hitler or Nazism may exist, many other relevant aspects are considerably different. Whether or not the analogy is ‘good enough’ to avoid being fallacious depends on the details of the argument and exactly what is being claimed.
  • Ad hominem: latin for ‘to the person’, this phrase refers to an argument that is an attack on the character, motives, or other characteristics of the person making a claim, rather than any details of the claim itself. An ad hominem attack is not necessarily a logical fallacy if it is not intended to constitute an argument, in which case it can simply be considered a form of personal abuse. Commonly, however, criticising a person’s character is used in attempt to undermine some claim they have made, even though in most cases the truth of a claim is independent of any personal characteristics of the person making it. A notable exception is when the claim itself relates to some characteristics of the person, or when their credibility or moral standing is of relevance to the issue (for example when assessing testimony in a criminal trial). Ad hominem attacks are ubiquitous in political speeches and campaigns.

Further Reading

380 high emotion words guaranteed to make you more persuasive: this is a very useful reference and resource for emotive language

Tug the heartstrings – appeal to emotion: provides some short examples of emotive written taken from history

Appeal to emotion: short discussion with some examples from the Nizkor Project

Ad hominem fallacy: a brief discussion of this fallacy from the Nizkor Project

Argumentum ad hominem: discussion with examples from FallacyFiles