What Is a Red Herring?

Four smoked herring fish wrapped in brown paper
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In logic and rhetoric, a red herring is an observation that draws attention away from the central issue in an argument or discussion; an informal logical fallacy. It is also called a "decoy." In certain types of fiction (especially in mystery and detective stories), authors deliberately use red herrings to mislead readers (metaphorically, to "throw them off the scent") in order to maintain interest and generate suspense.

The term red herring (an idiom) supposedly arose from the practice of distracting hunting dogs by dragging a smelly, salt-cured herring across the trail of the animal they were pursuing.

Definition

According to Robert J. Gula, red herrings are used to change the subject. "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

Gula explains that a red herring can be a simple detail or remark inserted into a discussion that is not relevant but, nevertheless, throws the discussion off course. This can be done for a number of reasons and in many different contexts.

Red Herring Examples

The following examples from literature and other publications provide contextual examples of red herrings and commentary on the purposes of the literary device.

Newsweek

"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

Economist Ashworth goes on to explain that the red herring represents a fallacious economic argument designed to distract readers and listeners from the real issue—that demand (and prices) would not increase because China and India had reached their maximum consumption level. A similar, but complex, news issue—the war in Iraq—serves as the basis for another use of the term red herring.

The Guardian

"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. ... (W)hat 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 [UK], June 28, 2003

According to the author of this The Guardian piece, the individual in question, Alastair Campbell—former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications—managed to use a red herring to turn an argument as to whether the UK should be engaged in the Iraq War into a discussion of how the issue was being covered in the press. This was a stinky ("pungent") red herring indeed, according to the author. Of course, red herrings are also used in fictional mediums, such as in mystery novels.

The White Lioness

"'There is something in the report that disturbs me,' [President de Clerk] said. 'Let us assume there are red herrings laid out in appropriate places. Let us imagine two different sets of circumstances. One is that it's me, the president, who is the intended victim. I'd like you to read the report with that in mind, Scheepers. I'd also like you to consider the possibility that these people intend to attack both Mandela and myself. That doesn't mean I'm excluding the possibility that it really is Mandela these lunatics are after. I just want you to think critically about what you are doing. Pieter van Heerden was murdered. That means there are eyes and ears everywhere. Experience has taught me that red herrings are an important part of intelligence work. Do you follow me?' " — Henning Mankell, "The White Lioness," trans. by Laurie Thompson. The New Press, 2011

Here, red herrings are used to distract and mislead. The perpetrator of the crime, perhaps the murderer, lays out false leads (red herrings) to throw the police off their tracks. Another example comes from British novelist Jasper Fforde.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing

"'What about Red Herring, ma'am?''


"'I'm not sure. Is Red Herring a red herring? Or is it the fact that we're meant to think Red Herring is a red herring that is actually the red herring?'


"'Or perhaps the fact you're meant to think Red Herring isn't a red herring is what makes Red Herring a red herring after all.'


"'We're talking serious metaherrings here.'" — Jasper Fforde, "One of Our Thursdays Is Missing." Viking, 2011)

Here, Fforde takes the notion of a red herring and uses it in a detective mystery novel, but with a twist: Fforde's book is one of a series of humorous detective novels that follows the exploits of its protagonist, a detective named Thursday Next. This book, and Fforde's series, is a parody of the genre of classic, hard-boiled detective novels. Not surprisingly, then, Fforde takes one of the main plot elements of the detective thriller, the red herring, and turns it on its head, poking fun at it to the point that the very term red herring is in itself a red herring, a false clue (or series of false clues), throwing the reader completely off course.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Red Herring?" ThoughtCo, May. 11, 2021, thoughtco.com/red-herring-logic-and-rhetoric-1692028. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 11). What Is a Red Herring? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/red-herring-logic-and-rhetoric-1692028 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Red Herring?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/red-herring-logic-and-rhetoric-1692028 (accessed July 25, 2021).