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Definition

red herring

Contributor(s): Trea Lavery

A red herring is a logical fallacy in which irrelevant information is presented alongside relevant information, distracting attention from that relevant information. This may be done intentionally or unintentionally.

A red herring is often used in movies, television and literature. For example, in a mystery novel, a suspicious character may be presented as a red herring to make the reader believe that he or she committed the crime, when the character is actually meant to distract the reader from evidence against the true culprit.

In business terms, a red herring is more likely to refer to an argument for or against a certain path of action. For example, an argument against raising salaries might go something like this: "We can't raise salaries, but we still provide great benefits for our employees." This argument is a red herring because the mention of employee benefits distracts from the real point, that salaries will not be raised.

The origin of the term "red herring" has been disputed. A common explanation is a technique used to train hunting dogs in which a kipper, or smoked herring, was used to lead the dogs by scent. However, this is inaccurate, as the story came from a mistranslation of instructions for training the horses used by hunting parties, not dogs.

This was last updated in May 2017

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