Tag Archives: Red Herrings

Your claim is arrogant!

17 Aug

“You’re arrogant!” or “That’s arrogant!”

Have you ever experienced this kind of attack following your stated view on a topic?

Recently while listening to a podcast, I heard about just such an encounter.  Listening to the details prompted me to think through how I might effectively respond, all the while employing a calm demeanor.  In my mind, I role-played a hypothetical conversation.

The podcaster relating the story had stated that ‘old-earth creationists’ were not evolutionists  (where the term evolution refers to a non-directed process of natural selection).

The man who disagreed then flung back the barb, “That’s arrogant!”

In the shock and heat of the moment, I can envisage how tempting it would be automatically to deny the hubris of one’s original statement – without thinking!   But that would be to succumb to a fallacy trap.  The attacker with this comeback has in effect employed a Red Herring fallacy, by sidestepping the truth or falsity of the premise he disputes.

If you can picture throwing an angry dog a piece of meat or fish to distract him from chasing you, then you understand the basic concept of the Red Herring.

It is immaterial whether the assertion ‘S is P’ is arrogant or modest. Premises are either TRUE or FALSE! A person may appear arrogant in how he presents a claim.  But to label a claim as arrogant is actually a category error.

What our name-caller actually is doing is making an entirely different assertion, one that is implicit:

Your claim is arrogant!  = People who hold your view are arrogant.

I don’t know if a calm discussion would be even possible, but IF it were feasible, this is how I imagined my follow-on question to the attack might unfold:

Me:  So let me see if I understand.  You are saying that my statement ‘Old-earth creationists’ are not evolutionists. indicates arrogance on my part?  Why is that arrogant? Isn’t what matters whether my premise is TRUE or NOT TRUE?

And why would not YOUR view that ‘old-earth creationists’ are evolutionists be equally arrogant, given your logic?

I can’t predict the rest of the conversation, but I wouldn’t bet on my phantom interlocutor settling down into a calm and rational discussion.  The accusation of ‘Arrogance!’ probably indicates an angry or heated speaker.  And that’s not an appropriate environment for exchanging rational ideas.

But having thought through how I might handle such a charge did strengthen my confidence!  Just as important as being equipped with the right knowledge IS our commitment to speaking with respect for the other human being.  After all, he or she is an image-bearer of our Creator.

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?