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red herring

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Definition:

An observation that draws attention away from the central issue in an argument or discussion; an informal logical fallacy.

Etymology:

From the practice of distracting hunting dogs by dragging a smelly, salt-cured herring across the trail of the animal they were pursuing

Examples and Observations:

  • A red herring is a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion. The red herring is invariably irrelevant and is often emotionally charged. The participants in the discussion go after the red herring and forget what they were initially talking about; in fact, they may never get back to their original topic."
    (Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. Axios, 2007)


  • "Some analysts even question the widespread assumption that rising consumption in developing nations will continue to force up food prices. Paul Ashworth, senior international economist at Capital Economics, calls that argument a 'red herring,' saying that consumption of meat in China and India has reached a plateau."
    (Patrick Falby, "Economy: Panicked About Expensive Food And Oil? Don’t Be." Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2007-Jan. 7, 2008)


  • "Credit where credit is due. In the space of a couple of days, Alastair Campbell has managed to turn an argument about the way the government presented its case for war in Iraq into an entirely different dispute about the way the BBC covered what was going on in Whitehall at the time. As a piece of news management, it has been brilliantly done. Hats off to Mr Campbell for the way he pulled the trick. It is easy to imagine, in years to come, how a new generation of trainee spin doctors will be raised on this case study of how the master was able to wrongfoot his tormentors so successfully.

    "Brilliant or not, what Mr Campbell has achieved is largely a classic use of a very pungent red herring. The BBC's reporting, though important, is not in fact the real issue; that is the strength of the case for action against Iraq. Nor is the red herring within a red herring about single sourced stories really relevant either; if your source is good enough, then the story is too."
    ("Labour's Phoney War," The Guardian. June 28, 2003)
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