Yesterday, I took my studies to the back bench of the 52nd Judicial Circuit Court in Huron County, Michigan to observe the motion hearing attempting to disqualify the Honorable M. Richard Knoblock from a custody/parenting case. While the verbal and legal sparring back and forth was quite intriguing, the focus of this blog is on a term that was used several times in the courtroom…much to my delight. Red herring.

Red herring…a literary device.
Red herring ready reference…an alliteration which is also a literary device.
Both of these statements constitute a third literary device called antistrophe.

I digress… (a debate tactic)

According to Merriam-Webster, the term red herring originates from the 15th century and is defined as:
(1) a herring cured by salting and slow smoking to a dark brown color
(2) [from the practice of drawing a red herring across a trail to confuse hunting dogs] : something that distracts attention from the real issue

Focusing on the second definition, as cited by Merriam-Webster, the term red herring is often employed in literary works as a technique to divert the reader, specifically in crime novels and mysteries.

Revisiting your philosophy class during your undergraduate tenure, you might recall that a red herring also falls into what is deemed as a logical fallacy or an Ignoratio Elenchi (more broadly, the non sequitur). Lander University’s philosophy page elaborates further:

“Ignoratio Elenchi (irrelevant conclusion): the fallacy of proving a conclusion not pertinent and quite different from that which was intended or required.

  • The ignoratio elenchi is usually considered slightly narrower in focus than the non sequitur. Strictly speaking, any time a conclusion does not follow from its premises, the fallacy occurs. Other similar fallacies include diversion, red herring, subject changing, and ignoring the issue. In law, such a response given to a question can be called “nonresponsive.”
  • Ignoratio elenchi is a name used for arguments whose premises have no direct relation on the claim at issue. In this sense of the term, almost any fallacy could be considered an instance of ignoratio elenchi.
  • In general, the ignoratio elenchi occurs when an argument purporting to establish a specific conclusion is directed, instead, to proving a different conclusion. This version is often termed the red herring fallacy—an irrelevant subject is interjected into the conversation to divert attention away from the main issue.
  • At least, this seems to be the way Aristotle, to some extent, described the fallacy. He writes, “Those that depend upon whether something is said in a certain respect only or said absolutely, are clear cases of ignoratio elenchi because the affirmation and the denial are not concerned with the same point.… Those that depend upon the assumption of the original point and upon stating as the cause what is not the cause, are clearly shown to be cases of ignoratio elenchi through the definition thereof..” (Aristotle, On Sophistical Refutations (Kessinger Publishing, 2004) 11.) Literally, ignoratio elenchi is “ignorance of the nature of how something is refuted.

More recently, ignoratio elenchi is described less broadly as an argument, whether valid or invalid, not relevant to or a digression from the point at issue. Douglas Walton points out, “It may not come as such a big surprise to find subsequently that the treatment of the ignoratio elenchi fallacy in the twentieth-century logic textbooks can be described as a conceptual disarray, mixing several fallacies together in ways that makes it hard to separate them. (Douglas N. Walton, Relevance in Argumentation (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004) 44.)

Ignoratio elenchi will be used in a special sense in these notes as a “catch-all” classification for fallacies of irrelevance which do not clearly fit into the other fallacies outlined here. As such, few examples of this fallacy are provided in these notes and in the exercises and tests.

  • The ignoratio elenchi is most effective in political contexts where oral arguments are being given. Many listeners in such a context are easily distracted.
  • Often this fallacy can be effective as a persuasive technique when coupled with the ad populum fallacy. The emotional situation in crowd can often be distracting and sometimes leads to overlooking the logical import of what is said.”