Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Red Herring: our favorite fallacy

I believe that of all the logical fallacies this is the one with which I am most familiar. I spent a period of time last year studying them because I was curious and I had a class that wasn’t teaching me much for a period of time so I would read about it. The reason this particular fallacy is so distinguished to me is that it is more common in our universe than any of the others. Alright, that wasn’t in the book I read, but if I ever were to write a book about logic (which I am seriously considering- the world needs it!) I would mention that I am convinced of this fact.

The red herring fallacy may take many forms, but the goal is the same: distract the other person from the actual problem at hand. This fallacy got its name from the historical use of red herring fish (or maybe it was just a part of the fish? I don’t remember the details) in shark hunting. Fishermen would employ the fish to distract and lead sharks away from noticing the trap/net/whatever they used to catch and kill them so that they wouldn’t see it coming and could be caught. Now in the context of arguments, the person applying this fallacy usually doesn’t actually trap the other because they are already working against a logical resolution, but the main idea is to inhibit the progress of the other person’s argument by throwing out something completely unrelated to the issue at hand.

The interesting thing is that in order to use this fallacy one must nearly always employ another fallacy because the other person will only be drawn off their point if given a reason to. For example, I’ve noticed that the absolute most commonly used fallacy in this case (as far as my experience proves) is the “appeal to pity” or more specifically, “appeal to emotion”. For instance, if I accuse my friend of lying to me and want to work it out so we know what actually happened and they respond by accusing me of being unreliable, they are trying to make me upset by the attack (appeal to emotion) to distract me from the original problem of mistrust (red herring), that is a red herring fallacy by means of appeal to emotion. I think that spells it out pretty obviously.

The point is that this happens to me and everyone I know multiple times a day. It irritates me to no end that no one realizes how irrational it all is that they can’t just take care of one problem at a time. Because most of the time the accusation being used to distract is entirely valid and should be addressed, but not in that context. No one will ever get anywhere by throwing accusations back and forth like some kind of senseless, angry game of blame-tennis.
That’s all.

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