“I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore!”
Red Herring: “the introduction of an irrelevant point into an argument. Someone may think (or they may want us to think) it proves his side, but it really doesn’t.”
So you’ve finally worked up the gumption to go discuss an important matter with someone with whom you have a specific problem. You approach the person about the issue and all of a sudden you find yourself defending another issue not directly related to your point. In fact, you are no longer discussing your original point at all. What happened? The person moved the subject to another topic; they used a red herring. The red herring fallacy is probably more prominent in our current culture than we realize. I’m making that generalization due to my own experience with this fallacy with much frequency. I’ve also seen this fallacy utilized by public figures to deflect difficult questions which they don’t wish to answer.
The term red herring comes from the name for a dead, smelly fish used to throw off a dog’s tracking ability while training a dog to follow a scent trail. A dog trainer would lay out the scent of the animal they wanted the dog to track and allow the scent to become old. Then, the trainer would drag the smelly red herring across the original trail, leading in a different direction from the animal scent the dog was supposed to follow. The red herring smell is intended to distract the dog from the original trail. So, in an argument or discussion, a “red herring” is a distraction from the real issue or question. It throws us off the track!
As the authors of Asking the Right Questions remind us, “You should normally have no difficulty spotting red herrings as long as you keep the real issue in mind as well as the kind of evidence needed to resolve it.” The listener should ask themselves: 1) What was the questioned asked? 2) What kind of response would specifically answer the question? 3) Did the response given specifically answer the question?
The main reason a red herring is fallacious is due to the fact that changing the topic of discussion does not count as an argument against a claim. Let me say that one more time: changing the topic of discussion (even if the new topic is closely related to the original topic) does not count as an argument against a claim. In order to get somewhere in an argument, we have to stay on a specific point until we’ve arrived at an answer or conclusion for that point. This is how to avoid “talking past one another.”
We also have to remember that when a red herring is introduced, the person might be saying something that is true, but not relevant to the original point. “Red herrings are often good arguments. The only problem is, they don’t prove the point being argued—they prove something else.” So if someone asks you why you are late for an event and you respond with “you’re always picking on me,” you’ve still responded with a red herring even if it’s true that they’re always picking on you.
An example from current events: The Cordoba Initiative would like to build a mosque close to the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The Anti-Defamation League has expressed a concern about the symbolism of the project due to a connection of the religion professed by the terrorists and the religion professed by those wanting to build the mosque: Islam. In response to this concern, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has stated that the people expressing concern are “Islamophobic.” Not only is this response by CAIRad hominem (see my last post), but it doesn’t answer the concern of the symbolism of the same religious beliefs of both groups. Instead, it throws interested dialoguers off the track with an accusation of bigotry. It's a red herring. An appropriate response would be to evidence how this particular mosque, in this location, would not be symbolic of the religious beliefs of the terrorists who led the attack.
A political campaign version of a red herring: A senator running for office might be asked about when our military is going to be out of Afghanistan and respond with an answer saying that our military is the best in the world. This is a red herring. It is avoiding the question by deflecting to a different argument. The senator wasn’t asked about the capability or rank of our military, but was asked for a specific response with regard to pulling out or staying in Afghanistan. The red herring was introduced as a deflection to answering the question. It might seem like the senator’s answer is related. However, he is really implying that we shouldn’t worry about the question asked because we are doing what the best military in the world would do. This does not answer the specific question asked. Instead, the senator could appropriately reply, “I do not know, but I trust our military because I believe they are the best in the world.”
I anticipate we will see a lot of this fallacy in the upcoming elections as the nation is dealing with so many difficult and emotionally-charged issues. So be on the lookout for the red herring: 1) Introducing an irrelevant argument into a topic of discussion 2) Answering a question with an unrelated response 3) Changing the topic of discussion (even if somewhat related to the original topic)
 Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn. The Fallacy Detective. (Muscatine, IA: Christian Logic, 2002, 2003), 38. I am utilizing this book for preteens through adults as an introductory level book on fallacies. For a higher level reading on critical reasoning, see Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley.
 M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007, 2004, 2001, 1998, 1994), 95.