by Hans Bluedorn
Read the information below carefully. At the bottom there is a short, fun quiz for you to do.
Some of you may have heard the terms “avoiding the question” and “red herring.” Avoiding the question is quite simple. Someone does not answer the question he has been asked, but he tries to sound like he is answering it. This sort of thing may have happened to you.
Smith: Say, Jones, when are you going to give me back the chainsaw you borrowed the other day?
Jones: That was a pretty nice chainsaw you lent me, which reminds me of the time my grandpa cut down a tree with his chainsaw, and the biggest raccoon. . . .
Jones is obviously avoiding the question. Smith probably won’t lend him any more tools. But sometimes avoiding the question can be more subtle.
Mrs. Jones: I sure hope you aren’t considering homeschooling your kids. Don’t you know homeschooled kids aren’t properly socialized?
Mrs. Smith: How do you know that?
Mrs. Jones: Because they just aren’t. I know some homeschooled kids who don’t know a thing about geography. They couldn’t even tell me what the capital of South Dakota was.
Did you notice how Mrs. Jones only sounded like she was answering the question? She doesn’t think homeschooling gives enough socialization. But she tries to prove it by saying something about homeschoolers who don’t know their geography. What does socialization have to do with geography?
Mrs. Jones avoided the question by introducing a red herring. A red herring is an irrelevant point inserted into an argument – in this case geography instead of socialization. A red herring distracts us from the topic we are supposed to talk about; all of a sudden we are arguing about something else.
Sometimes people will try to use a statistic to support their side, when their statistic doesn’t really support their side. This is also a red herring fallacy.
Mrs. Jones: We need to stop this homeschooling craze. Homeschooled kids don’t get enough socialization. Recent studies have shown that 78 percent of kids who don’t get enough socialization will make less than $7,000 when they grow up, and 15 percent of kids who don’t get enough socialization will end up in prison. We need to do something about homeschooling before we are overrun with poverty and crime.
This woman’s opinion is that homeschooling doesn’t give enough socialization. But her study only shows the dangers of not being socialized. It says nothing about whether homeschoolers get enough socialization or not. This is a red herring.
It is important to realize that someone who introduces a red herring may be saying something which is true. What makes it a red herring is that his argument – whether true or false – does not support his conclusion. Instead, it supports some other conclusion.
Son: My friends are going caving tomorrow. Can I go with them?
Dad: No, it’s too dangerous. I once went caving, and I fell into a stream and got wet. I was miserable the whole time. I don’t think you would enjoy it.
This dad makes a good case that caving can be miserable, but he says nothing about how it is dangerous. This is a red herring – he needs to show how caving is dangerous.
Below, we have collected several statements and short conversations, some of which contain examples of red herrings and some of which do not. For each quote, ask yourself this question: Does what they say support their conclusion? If it doesn’t, shout “RED HERRING!” as loud as you can. We’re warning you, some of these are tricky. You can check your answers and compute your score at the end.
1. Mom: “Joey, did you take out the trash yet, like I told you?”
Joey: “Why do I always have to take out the trash? It isn’t fair. Why doesn’t somebody else take out the trash for a change?”
2. Mount Everest is slowly growing taller. Geologists have been measuring the mountain for the past few years and have discovered that it increases in height by about one and a half inches per year.
3. I think homeschooling makes kids smart. A recent study of homeschool graduates found that 80 percent of homeschoolers eat a far healthier diet than the average public school student. A typical homeschooler’s diet was found to be full of fruits, whole-grain cereals, vegetables, and Echinacea, while public schoolers ate lots of hamburgers and Pop-Tarts®. Homeschoolers also were able to jump half a foot higher than public schoolers in trials on the high jump.
4. Mom: “Joey, what is the capital of South Dakota?”
Joey: “I think it’s Pierre. I know it isn’t Oklahoma City.”
5. Homeschooling has experienced much growth in the United States. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that between 1.6 and 2.0 million students are being homeschooled in the U.S. in every grade level from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
6. Taxes in this country are now at very high levels. The government should lower taxes. It is spending considerable amounts of money on defense when it is unnecessary. Now that the Cold War is over and the threat from the Soviet Union is gone, we shouldn’t have to devote so much of our annual government budget to protection from other nuclear powers.
7. Son: “My friends are going caving tomorrow. Can I go with them?”
Dad: “No, it’s too dangerous. You always get panicky in tight places. I figure you would have about a 50 percent chance of surviving with all your body parts in place.”
Son: “But, Dad, it’s with experienced cavers who know what to do in emergencies.”
8. All crocodiles are reptiles.
The platypus is not a reptile.
Therefore, the platypus is not a crocodile.
9. I think it is morally wrong to put murderers to death. Just look at all the false convictions that happened in Illinois. How do we know if somebody who was convicted by a jury actually committed the crime?
10. Surfer Dude: “Whoa, man! I’ve got like the most wicked board you can like buy man! I can like ride the waves like way man! Totally out of here!”
1.RED HERRING! He didn’t answer the question.
2.Not a red herring.
3.RED HERRING! A healthy diet and the ability to jump high don’t make you smart.
4.Not a red herring.
5.Not a red herring.
6.RED HERRING! This person makes a case that we should lower the defense budget, but that doesn’t necessarily mean taxes are too high.
7.Not a red herring. Both are speaking on topic.
8.Not a red herring.
9.RED HERRING! We all know false convictions are a bad thing. But the question is over whether we should put to death people who we know are murderers.
10.Like, nothing, dude!
How logical are you?
10 correct = Rocket Scientist
5-9 correct = Dental Hygienist
Fewer than 5 correct = Lab Rat
#5 seems like a red herring to me. The statement is home schooling is growing. But the stats used don’t show this, they just show a flat number which could be lower or higher than previous years.
If I am correct on #5 then I got a 9/10 🙂
I think you’re right. It should have been worded differently.
I felt the same way about #5.
I enjoyed this.