Critical Thinking: Informal Fallacies Part 1: Red Herring and Straw Man

In the last post we looked at the properties of a strong argument: (a) premise acceptability and (b) logical force (i.e., validity).  The concept of validity can be further sub-divided into two components:  (i) premise relevance and (ii) premise sufficiency.  Now we’re going to look at the dark side of arguments:  fallacies.   Fallacies are intentional or unintentional (common) mistakes in argument.

There are many different types of fallacies but the two that we will look at here have to do with how premises relate to the context of an argument.  They are the red herring and the straw man.  Both fallacies can be either intentional or unintentional.

Red Herring
A red herring is “an attempt to shift debate away from the issue that is the topic of an argument” (Groarke & Tindale; p. 66).   Basically, a red herring is an objection to a position that doesn’t address the actual argument.  Its premises are irrelevant to the conclusion it seeks to negate/oppose.

Lets look at an example from Plato’s Republic:

Socrates:  Rebecca Black is such a great singer.  Her voice is a combination of Jesus and Fergie.
Glaucon:  Whatev, her voice is auto-tuned.  If it weren’t or if she were singing live you’d hear that she’s out of tune.  Therefore, she is not a great singer.
Socrates:  Why do you hate her? OMG, you’re so mean!

Glaucon’s argument is that Rebecca Black’s voice isn’t very good, and he provides reasons.  Instead of replying to Glaucon’s argument by addressing his premises or reasoning, Socrates brings up an issue irrelevant to the argument.  In short, Socrates’ premises are not relevant to the conclusion he’s trying to support, that Rebecca Black is a great singer.   That is to say, Glaucon’s opinion of Rebecca as a person has no bearing on whether she’s a good singer or not–regardless of what day of the week it is.

The red herring fallacy has many cousins and sub-species which we’ll examine later in the course.  Some of them you may have heard of:  non-sequitur, ad hominem, and tu quoque.  When you use the Latin names you can really impress your friends…yay!

Straw Man
The straw man argument is similar to the red herring in that it doesn’t address the actual argument.  It differs in that a straw man doesn’t address the opposing argument because it misrepresents or distorts it.  A straw man argument often contains a grain of truth, but the opposing position is so blown out of proportion it is hardly recognizable.   The general purpose of a straw man argument is to present an opponents position in a way that makes it seems ridiculous, weak, and obviously wrong.

A great source for straw man arguments is any heavily biased news source.  Sentiments like “Obama’s going to take all our guns” is a straw man argument against proposed gun control legislation.  While there may be some truth in that the proposed legislation seeks to ban assault weapons, there is no part of the bill that requires all gun owners to turn in every type of gun they own.   Conversely, proponents of gun-control legislation might make a straw man out of the legislation’s opponents by arguing that pro-gun people don’t want any restrictions at all on gun ownership and types of ownership.

From the point of view of critical thinking there are a few important points to notice:  (a)  The straw man gun control arguments on both sides distorts the opponent’s position such that its actual content isn’t being addressed, (b) because the opposing argument is distorted it seems ridiculous and easy to refute, and (c) because the actual content isn’t being addressed, the topic of the argument gets shifted away from the actual premises rendering difficult meaningful dialogue.

Hotly debated topics are fertile ground for straw man arguments.  For good examples read the comments section for any article on GMO, nuclear power, natural gas, gun control, health care (in the US), immigration policy, and public policy regarding religion.  

Fallacy Fest! (It’s not what you Think….)

It’s my lucky day.  This just popped into my newsfeed.  Can you find the red herring and the straw man arguments?  (Both are conveniently contained in one meme!)  Note that pointing out the logical fallacies has nothing to do with whether you agree or not with the conclusion/point of view.  It is only an evaluation of how an arguer arrived at a particular point of view.  

As I’m mentioned before, it is perfectly possible to give terrible arguments for a true conclusion. As critical thinkers we seek to separate our analysis of the argument from our approval/disproval and truth/falsity of the conclusion.

Ok, I can’t help myself.  The people who made this meme are so scientifically illiterate that they list creatine as an artificial sweetener.  Good lord…  (Bonus, what logical fallacy did I just commit?)

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Informal Fallacies Part 1: Red Herring and Straw Man

  1. I foind this exaple quite tough! Is the straw man the distortion and exaggeration of the issue to say that aspartame is a poison present in all food?And the red herring… using the aspartame milk experiment example to argue against the popular fizzy drinks?


  2. Red herring is that \”Monsanto's Aspartame …. business is now owned by Pfizer.\” That tells us nothing about its safety (i.e., it fails the criterion of relevancy). The other red herring is their explanation at the bottom of how aspartame is made. Even if what they say is true (doubtful) it still isn't relevant to whether it's safe for consumption. We eat and digest all sorts of stuff produced by bacteria. In fact, without it we wouldn't be able to absorb the nutrients in most foods.Straw man is that \”Aspartame is literally a poison in all our food.\”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s