Distracting People With Irrelevant Stuff During Debates–The Red Herring Fallacy!

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

The following post/essay represents the views of only the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

Internet discussion pages appear to be teeming with red herring fallacies. I usually find them in debates on contentious topics that heavily impact people’s worldviews and private lives. Instead of engaging with the opponent’s point, people like to divert the focus away from the point and onto something irrelevant.

Check out the Family Guy red herring example.

This fallacy originated from an odorous fish used in fox hunting to prevent the hound from catching the fox as the hound is led astray by the pungency. Likewise, when an irrelevant issue is attractive enough, it leads a person away from proving his/her point or understanding the important point meant to be held in focus. [1]

These also occur in casual conversations, for instance, when you are trying to persuade your 4-year-old to go to bed, but he/she chooses this as the perfect time to ask things like, “How do baby tigers sleep at night and do they have to sleep at the same time I do?” And the conversation drags on, passing the time, and delaying your beauty sleep.


In political debates about the environment, similar conversations can take place: “Why try to save our environment from carbon-emission damages, as if that could reverse them. People won’t be able to adjust to such extreme lifestyle and technological changes. Celebrities will keep flying private jets. The endeavor is pointless.”

In fact, a similar conversation with President Donald Trump took place in a Rochester, New Hampshire Townhall setting. A female said, “Hi Mister Trump. I’m Megan. I’m a volunteer with the lead conservation voters, and I’m here to ask you what your plan is to reduce pollution that is driving climate change and endangering public health.” His immediate response was to ask the audience if they believe in global warming. Why does that matter? Irrelevant. Right?

In another similar setting, a different female asked, “Do you plan to visit with the pope when he comes to Philadelphia?” The president’s response was, “The pope believes in global warming. You know that. Right?” He then said the room temperature was so hot that he “might start believing in it” himself. Again. Irrelevant.

During his debate with Hillary Clinton, he was asked about his history of sexually assaulting women. Perhaps it was honorable for him to “apologize” and admit he is “not proud” of what he had done. But his statement that it was “locker room talk” in attempt to dismiss the weight of his illegal transgression as well as his immediate assertion that his team would destroy Isis had so quickly veered off the original topic.

Fictional Stories

Red herrings are common in mystery and suspense stories. Authors make use of them to conceal the facts from the readers to keep them enticed. Red herrings are appropriate for fictional stories where the audience’s attention needs to be sustained. [1]

Take for instance a story about an organized crime conspiracy. A guy in the beginning and throughout the story is shown to be rough, mean, and egotistical with a maniacal laugh. He is portrayed as the antagonist or mastermind behind the conspiracy as you learn the details of his long criminal history, is said to have hurt a lot of good people, interacts with a lot of bad characters in the crime syndicate, and has used drugs. But later, you find out that he is an undercover cop trying to analyze the perpetrators, and you suddenly realize that the mastermind is someone else, maybe the one who did everything ostensibly right to feign innocence since the beginning.

 The Hound of Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes novel  written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, uses the runaway prisoner Barrymore as a red herring, whose innocence we don’t learn about until the end, in order to keep readers from identifying the real offender. [2]

Red herrings are inappropriate for conversations wherein we are trying to get to the bottom of a matter in the real world. Concealing the truth of a situation helps no one except the concealer whose selfish agenda is satisfied above the interests of everyone who could be banefully affected by falsehood.

Red herrings in the workplace

“John: You promised me that you would stop playing with your phone and finish this paperwork.

Jason: Oh wait. I need to finish drawing up these diagrams for the new car I am building. Wanna see some screenshots?”

Maybe you have experienced this before. Maybe your coworker thought he/she was being cleverly evasive by broaching something off-topic about his project that would stab at your ego and draw your attention away from what was upsetting you previously.

When Tv and Smartphone Screens Want to Grab Your Attention

Advertisements express superlative examples of red herring fallacies. Nearly every Geico commercial I have seen discusses something humorous that has absolutely nothing to do with how to save money via their affordable car insurance deal.  Take this advertisement for example. The exceedingly tall man on the stadiometer and the woman hilariously trying to measure him but accidentally breaks the equipment has nothing to do with saving 15% on your car insurance. This greatly demonstrates the brilliance of advertisers to invent something that you will associate with what they want you to remember and purchase.

The (In)famous Chewbacca defense

A sophisticated red herring example would be the Chewbacca defense, wherein a criminal defense lawyer will intentionally circumvent a prosecution and its arguments by confusing the jury. [3]  

The Chewbacca defense is a title inspired by a South Park episode from October 1998, lampooning the O.J. Simpson murder trial, specifically Johnnie Cochran’s concluding statement at the end. Voiced by Trey Parker is a caricatured Cochran who argues that it “does not make sense” that the fictional Wookie character, Chewbacca, from the 1983 Return of the Jedi film, lives on the planet Endor whilst being from a different planet. And if mention of Chewbacca’s dwelling place on Endor in the case does not make sense, then the jury must “acquit” the defendant. [3]

This episode was meant to parody the real Johnnie Cochran’s concluding clever catchphrase “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, pertaining to the glove left by the killer at the crime scene said to be the evidence inculpating Simpson, which Cochran argued didn’t fit his hand. The glove’s not fitting Simpson’s hand could undermine its use as evidence of guilt but would be irrelevant as to sealing the verdict for acquittal. We could say that this leap to a conclusion depends on irrelevancy.

Red Herrings in Religion

Many of my personal experiences with people have led me to find red herring fallacies, or fallacies with a red herring flavor, predominantly in discussions about Christianity..

Atheist: I can’t believe in Yahweh, the god of the Bible, because his style of morality appears inconsistent with his claim to be all-loving.

Christian: You don’t have any objective moral source on which to depend for accusing Yahweh of immorality. We must believe in God, because without Him, our culture doesn’t have an explanation for why we are moral beings. You are only making moral objections against God to excuse your own sin.

Addressing the atheist’s personal position on morality, his/her source of morality, and possible ulterior motives for denying God’s existence is irrelevant to discussing his/her claim about self-contradictions within the Biblical texts. Accusing the atheist of hiding his/her sin could actually be an ad hominem fallacy, used to divert attention away from the discussion on Biblical self-contradictions and perhaps finding ways to reconcile them.

However, atheists may be making a non sequitur or jumping to a conclusion by arguing that inconsistencies in Yahweh’s character abolish or annihilate His existence. Instead, such inconsistencies just demonstrate that he is not inerrant. He could still exist whilst being flawed. Maybe he is feigning goodness and perfection to have us live in a dystheistic reality. Who knows?

God’s existence is often impeached on the basis that the Christian church and Christian history are littered with unspeakable calamities and iniquities (e.g. anti-abortion violence, sectarian frays, holy wars, sex scandals, child abuse, giving the death penalty to apostates, etc.). Although, using the abuses of the church as an answer to the question “Does God exist?” could amount to an ad hominem fallacy that diverts attention away from discussing God and onto personal accusations against Christians. The fact that many clergy have been found hiding heinous sins can’t be an argument against God’s existence nor the validity of the Bible. What could be demonstrated from these examples of Christian hypocrisy is that Christianity can’t guarantee a panacea for the world nor guarantee that your life will be hunky-dory upon becoming a Christian. This would also call into question whether a person undergoes change or becomes better just by becoming a Christian.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.


[1] https://literarydevices.net/red-herring/

[2] https://effectiviology.com/red-herring/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chewbacca_defense

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