Red Herring

Red Herring

Alias1: Befogging the Issue, Diversion, Ignoratio Elenchi2, Ignoring the Issue, Irrelevant Conclusion, Irrelevant Thesis

Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Red Herring

Subfallacies: Appeal to Consequences, Bandwagon Fallacy, Emotional Appeal, Genetic Fallacy, Guilt by Association, Straw Man, Two Wrongs Make a Right


The name of this fallacy comes from the sport of fox hunting. According to one story3, dragging a dried, smoked herring, which is red in color, across the trail of the fox would throw the hounds off the scent4. Thus, in general, a "red herring" is anything that can be used to distract attention5. In the context of argumentation, a red herring is something which distracts the audience from the issue in question. This frequently occurs during debates when there is an at least implicit topic, yet it can be easy to lose track of it. By extension, it applies to any argument in which the premisses are logically irrelevant to the conclusion.


This fallacy is one of Aristotle's thirteen fallacies identified in his pioneering work On Sophistical Refutations, which dealt with fallacious refutations in debate. It is often known by the Latin name "ignoratio elenchi", which is a translation of Aristotle's Greek phrase for "ignorance of refutation". The ignorance involved is either ignorance of the conclusion to be refuted—even deliberately ignoring it—or ignorance of what constitutes a refutation, so that the attempt misses the mark. As with all of Aristotle's original fallacies, its application has widened to include all arguments, not just refutations or those occurring in the context of a debate.


Red Herring is the most general fallacy of irrelevance. Any argument in which the premisses are logically unrelated to the conclusion commits this fallacy. A set of premisses is logically irrelevant to a conclusion if their truth does not make it more likely that the conclusion is true.



  1. All of these aliases, except for "ignoratio elenchi" but including "red herring", come from: S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (6th edition, 2000), p. 190.
  2. Translation: "Ignorance of refutation", Latin. This is a translation of Aristotle's classical Greek phrase; see: On Sophistical Refutations.
  3. William & Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1962).
  4. Engel tells a different story―see Note 1, above:
    Red herring may seem a puzzling name. It derives from the fact that prison escapees have been known to smear themselves with a herring (which turns brown or red when it spoils) in order to throw dogs off their track.

    Whatever the truth about the origin of the name, a "red herring" in the metaphorical sense is a distraction or diversion.

  5. Readers of mystery stories will be familiar with the term: in that context, it refers to a clue designed to mislead the reader.
  6. See, in particular, Engel's treatment, pp. 190-3―see Note 1.
  7. Section 1, Part 5.