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Red herring

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Part of the series on
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A red herring, besides being a type of pickled fish, is a fallacious argument style in which an irrelevant or false topic is presented in an attempt to divert attention from the original issue, with the intention of "winning" an argument by leading attention away from the original argument and on to another, often unrelated topic.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because changing the topic of discussion does not count as an argument against a claim.

Alternate names[edit]

Because changing the topic is an extremely common debate tactic, this fallacy has innumerable (mostly boring) names:

  • avoiding/befogging/changing/clouding/evading/ignoring/missing the question/issue/subject/point
  • trivial/irrelevant conclusion/thesis/objection
  • side-tracking
  • smokescreen
  • superficiality
  • megatrifle
  • cavil
  • quibbling
  • nitpicking
  • hair-splitting
  • digression
  • diversion
  • fallacy of materiality
  • fallacy of relevance
  • ignoratio elenchi ("ignorance of refutation")


The name of this fallacy comes from the sport of fox hunting in which a dried, smoked herring, which is red in color, is dragged across the trail of the fox to throw the hounds off the scent. Thus, a "red herring" argument is one which distracts the audience from the issue in question through the introduction of some irrelevancy.


This "reasoning" takes the following form:

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A, even though topic B has no relevance to topic A.
  3. Topic A ends up being abandoned.


Quibbling occurs when a very small part of a person's argument, often the extremely precise meaning of a word, is focused on, rather than the argument as a whole.

Quibbling applies almost any time when there's more argument over what someone meant than over whether it's true, except when someone's completely incomprehensible.

Logic Chopping[edit]

Logic Chopping occurs when often-useful yet time-consuming and often-misunderstood tools of logic (such as converting arguments into syllogisms) are either (a) required of from the speaker, making them waste time rather than make their points, (b) used to disguise the true meaning of a statement, or (c) to turn a simple issue into a complex and difficult philosophical argument.

Essentially quibbling plus unnecessary philosophy.


  • "I'm against abortion. By eliminating sexual innuendo from the media, we can prevent its need."

Person A: "Nazis are marching on the streets! Person B: "Radical Islamism is the same as Nazism! You support radical Islamism, so therefore, you support Nazis!"

Tax cut[edit]

An example would be the following (theoretical) argument for a tax cut:

I've begun to think that there is some merit in the Republicans' tax cut plan. I suggest that you come up with something like it, because if we Democrats are going to survive as a party, we have got to show that we are as tough-minded as the Republicans, since that is what the public wants.

Suddenly, the debate is no longer about taxes, but looking good to the public.

Legitimate use[edit]

It's not a red herring if the point is actually crucial to the opponent's argument -- even if they don't realize it. Also most good books or movies would not work without a couple of red herrings thrown out of left field.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]