Ever tried having an argument with someone, but somewhere along the line, you both drift off course, and at your point of realization, you couldn’t align the ongoing discussion with the initial topic? Well, maybe you should take your time to assess the discussion one more time. There are chances you would observe that the red herring fallacy might have been knowingly or unknowingly introduced into the conversation, at which point the debate took a new turn.
So what is Red Herring fallacy? In logical reasoning, red herring fallacy occurs when attention is diverted from the real issue surrounding a discussion, and focused instead on another issue that has slight/inconsequential relevance to the main issue. In news articles and other forms of publications, red herrings are intended to divert readers’ attention from the original intents of a prevailing issue and push them towards focusing on something else that is at best, superficially related to the main issue. It is also common in regular interactions. When coyly applied, they could be hard to detect as a fallacy. Sometimes, even when detected, they appear to be of good intention.
Olivia: Daddy look! An ice cream truck, I want some ice cream!
Mr. Wyatt: C’mon Olivia, you have had enough for today. There are starving children in Africa who don’t even have clean water to drink.
From the example above, the main issue is very plain; Olivia wants some ice cream. But instead of addressing that, her dad opted to divert her attention to some other issue, with hopes that she is distracted from her ice cream.
Red herring fallacy is regarded as an informal fallacy, and with informal fallacies, the error is mostly embedded in the reasoning therein, rather than in the logic. Hence, an argument consisting of an informal fallacy might appear/seem valid while also remaining fallacious.
Fun Fact: Red herring fallacy was derived from a supposed fictional story written by a journalist, William Cobbett, who narrated how he used strong-smelling smoked red herring to distract hounds from hunting down a rabbit. The story paints a vivid picture of how a reader can be thrown off the tracks of the main issue, to follow the trails of another.
Red herring fallacy is a fallacy that is quite common in media circles, and sometimes we find ourselves falling for the diversion. Understandably, the diversions used mostly, if not always, seem to be relevant to the topic. However, even when relevant, they are hardly of benefit to the main topic.
For an extensive understanding of red herring fallacy, let’s consider an article.
For context, this article was written just around when Greta Thunberg and her clamor for the immediate global address of climate change was a prevailing issue and at its peak. Many articles were floating around for and against climate change, but some articles took a weird turn and threw some red herrings into the picture.
“This Greta Thunberg thing is child abuse.”
At the time of this publication, individuals and groups involved in the Greta Thunberg climate change discussion were debating either for or against the proposed strategies for addressing climate change. The article and others alike chose to bring in another perspective – child abuse – into the mix.
While child abuse and whether or not Greta is a child being abused is a delicate topic that requires inquisitive deliberation, it doesn’t have a direct bearing on the climate change issue. In the same vein, the claim is not based on substantial analysis; rather, it tends more towards becoming an imposed opinion drawn from speculations.
By saying, “This Greta Thunberg thing is child abuse,” the genuine issue that brought Greta into the limelight is obscured and masked as a crime, so to say. The title alone puts the whole post at the risk of being totally fallacious.
“Adolescent climate change protester Greta Thunberg has stage parents, literally…Now, they’ve pivoted into the parental act of every stage parent looking to secure the next generation of fame. Apparently, the Swedish version of a Teri Shields is pimping her kid out, not to Penthouse, but to the cause of climate apocalypse.”
“If you’re a fading opera starlet married into a family of fame, and your only two children are having exceptional trouble even attending school, then I suppose you can secure a bit more fame by milking your child’s clinically diagnosed obsession.”
Here, while still trying to draw attention away from the core issue, the article refers to Greta’s parents’ career as stage performers, in turn, referring to Greta’s activism as an act – a stage performance.
With red herring fallacy, sometimes the distraction tends to undermine the original issue, as with Olivia, whose father told to think of starving African children instead of asking for more ice cream. The excerpt above clearly tries to undermine Greta’s environmental activism by pointing out that she’s only putting up an act for all we could know.
The excerpt goes ahead to add some sprinkle of ad hominem fallacy by trying to throw shades at characters related to the source of the argument. Implying that Greta’s mother is manipulative and exploitative, while also stating that she is ‘pimping’ her out to the cause of climate apocalypse.
“She began suffering from depression as a child, by her own admission, in part because she learned about climate change at age 8. She was later diagnosed with autism and obsessive compulsive disorder…Now tell me, does it seem healthy to place a child with this many mental illnesses under the spotlight of public scrutiny, with a sole focus on the very phenomenon and associated alarmism that triggered her in the first place?”
Here, the article reminds the readers of Greta’s mental health. First off, as a stance to attack her credibility as a prop for environmental activism. Secondly, as a cunning ploy to accentuate the ‘child abuse’ angle, which the article is leaning on.
The article employs argumentum ad misericordiam to draw away further and distract the reader from the prevailing climate change topic. After listing the elements of Greta’s mental health, it goes further to beckon on the readers’ emotions. Supposedly with the hope that the readers’ focus isn’t on Greta’s environmental activism anymore, but rather on her mental health and the need for her to be shielded from the subject.
In seeking to distract, the article failed to eliminate alternatives. From the onset, the article pointed out that Greta convinced her mother to quit international opera due to greenhouse gas emissions from flying. This could be described as an act of passion. And who better to protest for climate change publicly than an individual who was able to convince their mother to limit their career, just so their carbon footprint could be reduced? Should this supposed passion be suppressed? Does her mental state mean that she doesn’t have a shot at normalcy? With the assumption that she has access to medical care, do the medical professionals taking care of her indicate that her venture is a risk that, if taken, is tantamount to child abuse?
Can the article be better?
Yes. Given the fragility of the topic and its seeming traction towards calling for concern on Greta’s mental health, the points would be more presentable if hard facts were presented from a medical perspective. The article would also do better without the direct and indirect attacks on Greta’s parents, as the attributes ascribed to them lack substance – there is no proof to indicate if they are true or not.
Generally, the article could have been better if it simply deliberated on the likelihood that “this Greta Thunberg thing” could be child abuse, if properly scrutinized. That would have spared the article the burden of bearing speculations as supposed facts, while not entirely trying to distract readers from Greta’s efforts as a climate change activist, nor trying to undermine her actions or ability as a teenager trying to pursue her passion.