Red Herring

I promised I would not write about politics, one way or the other, but the politics of the day definitely uses “red herring”, a logical fallacy to draw attention from the real facts. I used to teach this part of logic in my composition class at the university, and my students had a really hard time trying to use a red herring in their writing, but we do it all the time in our speech, in our thinking, in our game playing world.



This is what a red herring is all about — words, actions to distract you the reader, the listener from the real issue at hand.

How many times have you watched the political debates on TV and the moderator asks a question and neither candidate answers the question. That, my friend, is a red herring.



In composition the student was to use it as a part of logic to show that the argument is not relevant to the issue being discussed. Believe me, not many students were successful with this type of writing. And if they were, I might have suggested they become political speech writers or mystery writers.

Mystery writers use this technique. People love to read a good mystery, and the killer part is when a red herring is introduced. That is when the plot gets good. The red herring, this misleading clue, this clever way to induce the reader to make a false conclusion is what makes a good mystery, good. I love to read Dan Brown’s work, and he definitely used red herring in The Da Vinci Code. If you know the story, the main character is chasing clues to only find they are misleading, and he has to continue with his search.

But other people use it, too. The habitual criminal will use it to divert the police, the elementary and high school student uses it to explain the late paper — for that matter, college students use it, too. I once had a student who had at least 7 grandmas die so he could be excused from class. I caught on after two. But, he did try. What was the real issue — he had been arrested for drugs, but he didn’t tell me until he said he was not going to be able to finish the class because he was being sentenced. I made him get a note from the judge, and he did, and then I let him take the test early so he could get credit for the class. But, if he would have just told me instead of trying to distract me with dead grandmas…

Children use it — “Time to go to bed, Johnny.” and Johnny responds, “Why is the sky blue?”

Oh — and the word has nothing to do with a red herring because there is no such thing as a red herring. If it refers to anything in the fish world, it is a strongly cured kipper. So, in the end, the idiom itself is a red herring, it distracts the listener from the real issue, never really giving the listener the real answer. Now, if that doesn’t confuse people, I don’t know what will.



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