Logical Gal and the Fallacy of Bunny Trails

3 Jan

I know, ‘there’s no such fallacy as this one’, you say.

Actually, there is!  But it has a different name.  It’s the Fallacy of Red Herrings.

A herring is a fish that is very tempting to a dog. Apparently in European markets, ‘back in the day’, the police employed dogs to chase down petty thieves.  And if the thief sprinted across the town square, weaving in and out of market stalls, dogs hot on his heels, he might grab a fish from the fishmonger and throw it away from him and the dogs would switch directions to feast on a ‘red herring’.

Great diversionary tactic

In logic, we talk about the tactic of the Red Herring whenever your interlocutor tries to shift the direction of the ‘conversation’ away from what is at hand.  Our son, Wes, was recounting a perfect example of this sneaky technique in a conversation he read on Facebook.  Person A was defending the Bible’s prohibition against homosexuality.  Person B, instead of dealing with that topic, tried to divert the conversation this way, “Why doesn’t the Bible take up the sin of gluttony?  Why do Christians seem always to harp on this one topic of homosexuality?!!!!”

So what could Person A have done?

Not fall for the bait!  He needed to calmly say,

  • You raise a good point about gluttony as a sin.  Would it be all right with you if I first answer your question about homosexuality and the Bible?  Then once we’ve discussed that, if you still are interested, I’ll be happy to listen to this other concern.  Does that seem fair? 

The difficulty is, of course, maintaining the discipline and quiet composure to treat the other person with respect.

It seems to me, that if we practice staying on one topic in general, when the stakes and potential for ‘heat’ aren’t  likely, then once we’ve gotten that ‘habit’ well placed, maybe we won’t be easily led off the trail.  What I find humbling is how often I, myself, try to shift the topic to make it easier for me to ‘clobber’ my opponent.

Question: When was the last time either YOU yourself tried to shift the topic or experienced the ground moving beneath you?

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