Beware the Red Herring!!!!

by | Oct 16, 2019


Last week I attended an excellent seminar on the ethics of gene editing. (See related IFOD on CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and related ethical considerations.) One of the speakers, a bioethics professor, expressed the following during a panel discussion:

A much more immediate concern than issues concerning of editing human germ lines is the overuse of smartphones and electronics. Smartphone addiction is a big problem, especially with younger generations, and is negatively affecting their brains. (I’ve paraphrased).

At first blush, this is a good point. Smartphone and electronic addition is a problem and it is a problem now. Editing the human gene line is a future issue which may or may not even be a problem.

However, if you stop and think about it – this is a completely irrelevant point! Smartphone addiction has nothing to do with gene editing. They both can be problems.

The smartphone addiction point the bioethics expert made is what is called a “Red Herring.” It merely distracted from the main issue under discussion which was the ethical issues surrounding human gene editing.

What is a Red Herring Statement?

A “Red Herring” is a statement or argument that is meant to distract from the true underlying topic or more important subject. It can be done intentionally or unintentionally and is considered a type of flawed reasoning.

Typically, the logical structure of a red herring is as follows:

  • PERSON #1: Makes Argument A
  • PERSON #2: avoids Argument A and presents Argument B
  • Argument A is abandoned and Argument B becomes the topic of the discussion.

Red herrings are a common way that people respond to difficult questions, arguments or topics. Most politicians are practically professional fishmongers given how much red herring they sling. A fun, but fictional, example is the movie Wag the Dog in which the President is caught in a sex scandal just prior to the election and his administration teams with a Hollywood filmmaker to create a fake war to distract from the scandal.

Red herrings used during political discussions often follow this form:

Person A: I can’t believe what Politician X is doing with respect to ______. What a horrible policy.

Person B: Well, Politician Y, who you support, did _________, which is a horrible policy.

Person B, by bringing up a policy of Politician Y has distracted from the issue of the discussion of the policy supported by Politician X.

Origin of Red Herring Phrase

Herring is a fish that is silver in color, but turns red, and becomes quite smelly, upon being smoked. While various origins of the phrase have been reported, according to reporting by Gizmodo, the true origin is as follows:

A firebrand journalist, William Cobbett, railed in 1803 against the laziness and foolishness of the rest of the press. To add a little color to his rant, he made up a folksy story about how when he was a child he would draw hounds away from a hunt by trailing a red herring along the ground. The journalists in his time, he said, were just as easily misled. The story caught on, and entered the public imagination.

How to Combat Red Herrings

First and foremost, pay attention and note when a red herring has occurred and don’t fall for it – do not be distracted from the main point. Be diligent that the original issue is addressed. We must be especially wary of this from politicians or pundits we support because we are already primed to agree with them and thus won’t be looking for their red herrings. The issue of red herrings does not only exists with respect to people on the “other side” – rather it is important to be aware of red herrings used by people/arguments we support so that we are not unknowingly manipulated.

Second, if you recognize a red herring during a conversation with another person, politely but firmly shift the discussion back to the original issue. If the person persists with their red herring, consider whether it is worth it to directly call them out on their use of a red herring. It is worth noting that when I’ve called out people on using a red herring in a discussion that I’ve probably come across as a bit of an asshole.


  1. I listened to the Democratic debate last night and when I look back on what was said, Red Hearings were a primary tactic used by all to shift the subject from what was ask to something they would rather discus. In some cases, it was done very effectively. Timely IFOD!

    • Thanks Ted!

  2. Until I read this IFOD, I had forgotten that in the investments world, preliminary prospectus’s and preliminary official statements are called red herrings.


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