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Common Logical Fallacies Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Lesson Summary

The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false; the second, to know that which is true.

Lactantius, North-African author and rhetoric teacher (c. 250–325 b.c.e.)

You read and hear arguments every day, in magazine and newspaper ds and articles, and in ads and political speeches on TV. Some arguments are logically sound, and some contain logical fallacies that make them invalid. Some fallacies might show up accidentally, but in this lesson, you'll learn about red herring, ad hominem, and straw man fallacies, the kind that deliberately aim to distract you from the real issue in an argument.

After you've watched a debate between political candidates, do you ever wonder "what just happened"? Many people do—so many that right after a debate, TV station pundits have to rehash what was said so the average person can understand the debate! Debates should be about the real issues facing voters, and how each candidate plans to solve them. Instead, candidates' remarks are often filled with distracting techniques designed to shift focus from the real issues and put opponents on the defensive.

Three often-used focus-shifting techniques are red herring, ad hominem, and straw man fallacies. Although relatively easy to spot, these logical fallacies can be challenging to deflect—if one is aimed at you, it's critical to know how it works so you can refocus your attention on the real issue.

Red Herring

This may seem like an odd name for a common logical fallacy. The term comes from an archaic practice of using strong-smelling fish to distract hounds from a fainter scent during their training. A red herring fallacy is simply any unrelated topic brought into an argument to divert attention from the subject at hand. A person on the defensive end of an argument changes the subject from one that he or she feels uncomfortable with to one he or she knows more about. A red herring fallacy looks like this:

  1. There is discussion of issue A.
  2. There is an introduction of issue B (irrelevant to issue A, but pretending to be relevant).
  3. Issue A is forgotten and issue B becomes the focal point.

Example

"Nuclear power is a necessity, even though it has the potential to be dangerous. You know what is really dangerous, though? Bathtubs. More people die in accidents in their bathtubs every year than you can imagine."

Where's the red herring? Quite simply, the speaker changed the subject from issue A, the danger of nuclear power, to the irrelevant issue B, bathtub dangers. Then, the speaker goes on with a statistic about issue B, and issue A is forgotten!

Red herrings work well if the distracter is something many people will agree with or seems to be closely related to the original issue. For example, someone might throw in a comment about how no one likes paying higher taxes or working longer hours. Who would disagree? Here's an example:

"Okay, since the new boss came on board, he seems to be getting the job done, but how about the longer hours? Are you happy about your new work schedule? You have less time with your family, and you're not making any more money than before!"

The speaker diverted attention from the new boss doing a good job to the topic of working more hours and not being paid more. The red herring might have worked, as listeners probably would be more interested in evaluating their own circumstances rather than hear how great the boss is.

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