Recently a major credit card processor refused to handle further transactions that were gifts directed to a non-profit group. They said the organization’s view of family breakdown and the impact such a view has on children made it a “hate group.” Similarly, a firm that provides information about non-profits labeled one association a “hate group” due to the group’s traditional position on marriage (though the information company quickly retracted this assessment when critics challenged their arbitrary action).
Why would these two corporations that trade in essential services take such an extreme position? I believe it may be because they have embraced as valid a logical fallacy that is prevalent in current discussions of social issues. This non-sequitur is one of three common but very harmful errors we must understand and avoid if we want to promote healthy dialogue, human flourishing, and—ultimately—the common good. This week I’ll discuss the first of the three: the red herring fallacy.
What is the Red Herring Fallacy?
One commits this fallacy when she or he sidetracks conversations away from the point under discussion to a different issue, and then announces that the point made about that other issue establishes proof of the conclusion. It allegedly gets its name from the use of herring, a type of fish with a pungent scent, to distract tracking dogs from following someone's trail.
For instance, suppose I’m discussing with Jim the impact social media has on our kids, and he says:
A lot of people say today’s digital media leaves our children with the inability to focus on something for more than a few minutes. But there is so much that can be learned from digital media. Netflix and news websites are great ways to learn about the world. And video games help our kids improve their reflexes and decision-making skills. So I don’t think today’s digital media is a bad thing at all.
Notice the discussion we are having is whether digital media contributes to our kids losing the ability to focus for longer periods of time. But then Jim sidetracks the discussion and focuses on another issue: other positive results of our kid’s use of digital media. Whether or not he is right about these benefits of social media, this is not the issue. But once Jim lists all these alleged benefits, he concludes that digital media is good for our kids. He never responds to the issue of it affecting the child’s ability to focus on anything for long periods of time.
A Historical Example—1960s Voter Registrations in the South
This was a fallacy used in some of the rhetoric against the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. For instance, some misguided southern whites argued voter registration drives among African-Americans were unnecessary. They argued African-Americans were so much better off than their ancestors (a dubious claim in its own right). Therefore, they argued, there was no need to put effort into African-Americans voter registrations.
Notice how the suggestion of improved conditions for African-Americans in the south sidetracks the conversation away from the need for voter registration drives. Even if true, this is irrelevant to the conclusion that voter registration drives are unnecessary. This dangerous fallacy is an attempt to trick the listener or reader into drawing an unfounded conclusion. In this case, many saw this fallacy for what it was and didn’t buy the conclusion. Unfortunately, this fallacy is alive and well in current conversations.
A Ministry Example—Discussing Who Jesus Is
Recently I was having a conversation with a person about Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God. I offered evidence to support this claim, to which he responded:
Jesus can’t be the only way to God. Just last week a local Synagogue opened a homeless shelter, and they are doing more than anyone else to make sure all in our community have a place to sleep at night. So you must be mistaken!
Notice how the issue of whether Jesus is the only way to God was diverted to a discussion of the good things a local synagogue is doing. From this he concluded that I must be wrong about the Person of Christ. As great as the synagogue’s deeds were, they are a different issue than who Jesus is. Therefore his conclusion does not follow—another example of this fallacy.
A Current Example—Many LGBTQ Discussions
A “hot topic” these days is the LGBTQ movement. So for contemporary examples of this and the other fallacies I’ll use examples from this current conversation.
Notice that when a concern or criticism of the LGBTQ position is voiced, the response is often “That’s hate speech” or “You are guilty of a micro-aggression.” If structured as a more formal argument, it would go something like this:
Your concerns over the LGBTQ agenda are not valid. Your concerns are driven by hate. Your speech constitutes micro-aggressions against those who identify as LGBTQ. Therefore we must reject your invalid concerns and all affirm the LGBTQ agenda.
Putting the argument more formally, the red herring fallacy becomes obvious. The premise to be defended is that objections to the LGBTQ agenda are not valid. But the supporting argument is not about the agenda’s validity. Rather it is an emotionally-charged claim that the objections are “hate speech” and “micro-aggressions.” Whether true or not, this is a different issue, not support for the premise. Yet from this “support” the conclusion is drawn that the concerns are invalid. This is a textbook case of the red herring fallacy.
The recent US Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of same-sex marriage also cautioned supporters of same-sex marriage about this. The majority opinion included this observation:
[M]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. —US Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), at 2602
In essence, the Supreme Court is saying that we must respect one another’s views, even if we disagree. One important way of respecting one another’s views is not employing logical fallacies, such as the red herring fallacy, in our discussions. Rational dialogue and disagreement is not hate or micro-aggression. Confusing the voicing of alternative views with hate or micro-aggression is a red herring.
To be clear, I am not here claiming there are no good arguments in favor of the LGBTQ perspective. In an earlier series I’ve made the case that the LGBTQ position is based on a faulty view of what it is to be human, and therefore does not promote human flourishing and the common good. I believe I supported my view with sound and valid arguments. But I may be wrong. I invite those who disagree with me to engage my arguments there.
Here I am simply making the point that this often-heard argument in favor of the LGBTQ agenda (call it the “hate speech” or “micro-aggression” argument) is not a good one. It is an example of the red herring fallacy.
We all want to have healthy and productive dialogue to promote the common good. Therefore, when anyone hears this fallacy employed, no matter what their position, they should be quick to identify the argument as invalid. Hopefully this will lead to “less heat and more light” in conversations around this issue.
Christians Must Also Be Careful To Avoid This Fallacy in conversations about the gospel
I believe it is equally tempting for Christians to employ this fallacy. The Christian perspective has been marginalized in Western culture over the past several centuries, removed from the public square and relegated to the realm of private opinion—“true for you but not for me.”
It is tempting to respond to those who marginalize Christians, question the Christian perspective, don’t agree with our view, or worse, with arguments based on the red herring fallacy. The argument may go something like this:
The Christian perspective should also get a hearing in the public square. Those who want to silence Christians just don’t want to believe in God. But this is wrong. Therefore the Christian perspective should get a hearing!
Let’s analyze this argument. The major premise, to be confirmed, is that “The Christian perspective should also get a hearing in the public square.” Yet the supporting data is the (alleged) motivation of others to silence the Christian voice (similar to the argument concerning motivations of “hate” and “micro-aggression” above). From this the conclusion is drawn that the Christian perspective should get a hearing.
Here again the supporting data (the motivation to silence the Christian voice), even if true, is not relevant to the argument. It is not evidence in favor of the major premise, and therefore does not lead to the conclusion. The Christian who reasons in this way is guilty of the red herring fallacy. (I do believe the Christian perspective should receive a hearing in the public square, but for other reasons I’ve discussed here.)
It is easy for anyone whose position is being criticized to respond with red herring arguments. Therefore we must be vigilant to not give in to this temptation. Rather, we must believe the best of those who disagree with us and respect their position as worthy of considering and discussing. In the words of the Obergefell decision, we must believe they have “reach[ed] that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are [to be] disparaged….”
If we all assumed the other’s honorable intentions we would be following Jesus’ command to treat others as we wish to be treated (Luke 6:31). Only in this way can all views on a topic be honestly considered, and the one most reasonable be adopted. I’ve traveled to many of countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that explicitly reject this principle. The result is always the same—people do not flourish and the common good is not promoted or protected.
Democratic societies are based on the assumption that open and honest dialogue, discussion, and debate help in developing a healthy society. Introducing the red herring fallacy into these discussions makes it much harder to come to agreement and truth on these issues. Instead, it muddies the waters and leads to more division and entrenchment.
The second fallacy is equally common and harmful—the “Genetic Fallacy.” I’ll discuss this derailment of profitable conversations in my next post.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic.