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Red Herring

by Hans Bluedorn

Red Herring

The following was sent to me by Richard Dingman (Sacramento, California).

Headline: "Senate: Condos can't ban fluffy, Fido" The Sacramento Bee, dated Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Quote: "After a debate touching on their own four-legged friends, senators [of the California senate] voted to forbid condominiums and mobile home parks from completely banning pets.

Supporters said the bill would help many Californians, including older residents, whose lives could be brightened by animals.

Arguing for the bill, Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, recalled that his own mother was greatly comforted by her little dog after Burton's father passed away

"That poodle was a companion of my mother, who naturally, after the death of my father, was living at home alone," Burton said.

Another supporter, Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina Del Rey, called the pro-pet measure "probably the most important property rights bill of the year." End quote.

I thought this was kind of funny. It's hard to imagine they are actually trying to be serious. This is such a perfect example of a Red Herring, with an Appeal to Pity tossed in for flavour, that my computer is starting to smell like a plate at Red Lobster.

Appeal to Pity is simply an irrelevant appeal to your sense of pity. "Agree with me because you feel sorry for me," is the basic idea. Logical reasoning is set adrift on a sea of emotions. Red Herring is along similar lines. I don't think anybody really knows why they call it a Red Herring. I've heard various stories, usually involving dogs, over ripe fish, and prison inmates, but I'm sure it has something to do with creating a false scent trail. Anyway, to use a Red Herring is to throw the argument off track, to introduce an irrelevant topic, and to start arguing about it instead of the original point. This switch from a difficult argument to a more combatable one, is usually done so subtly that the opposition is unaware of any change. That is, until he wakes up several moments later and finds he is in quite a different place than he intended. "Gone on a rabbit trail" could be used to describe a Red Herring. This diversionary technique is used by many a lazy student.

"Why should I study math? I don't want to be a math teacher." [I may have used this one, rather futilely, in the past. The desire to be a math teacher is not the point.]

"Taking drugs can't be bad. There are lots of people who enjoy it." [Also an irrelevant point.]

"Sparkledent is great for reducing cavities. Dentists say cavities are the number one dental problem in America." [But how does it reduce cavities?]

"O. J. Simpson couldn't have murdered his wife. He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's famous!" [So was Jack the Ripper...except he was in a different hall of fame.]

"Gun manufacturers should do something about all those guns they have lying around. My grandson was brutally murdered last summer by another kid with a Glock." [There is no connection between the two statements. This also is an Appeal to Pity.]

Now back to our quote.

"That poodle was a companion of my mother, who naturally, after the death of my father, was living at home alone," Burton said."

Giving an anecdote about your mother, who probably doesn't even live in a condominium, being comforted in her old age by little Fu-Fu, has got to be one of the oldest tricks in the book. Old folks must be flopping over dead by the dozens. All this, just because some money-grubbing condo owners refuse to allow them any pleasure.

While many people may get much benefit from their pets, this is not the point being argued. The point being argued is whether the California senate has the right to, and should, get involved in the rules condo owners make for their customers. The argument is not over whether pets help you live a happy life. If people like pets, it's up to them to make sure they live somewhere they can keep them.

How do you deal with a Red Herring or Appeal to Pity? Since the use of both Red Herring and Appeal to Pity is not a true argument, the only thing you can do is reassert the proper point and get back on track. If you can't ignore the irrelevant assertion, use some variation of the "what has that got to do with it" phrase, and go back to the real subject.

Responses to Snob Appeal and Appeal to Tradition

Since my last two loops several people have sent me examples of Snob Appeal and Appeal to Tradition.

"Envy is so much more pleasant when you're on the receiving end." – An appeal to snobbery from a Mitsubishi car advertisement.

Another Snob Appeal came from a rather expensive toy catalogue, prompting: 

"Join Michael Douglas, John Travolta, and Bruce Willis in owning one of these delightful miniatures." This is an enticement to make yourself one of the select and envied group of celebrities.

From a poultry catalogue:

 "We have been doing this since 1917 and our longevity within the industry speaks for our ability to do our part successfully."

While this last example may look like a faulty Appeal to Tradition, this is not quite so. In this example, a valid reason is given for appealing to tradition. This is actually good reasoning. A proper argument (not a fallacy) from tradition could go like this. "Since we're still in business, we must be a reputable establishment. Otherwise we would have been put out of business long ago." This is using the principle of "survival of the fittest" in the business world to show you're on the top. It is using scientific reasoning to demonstrate a particular business's reputation. Not a bad argument – that is, unless they have just been cheating everybody for a long time. This is quite different from saying that everybody should do business with a particular company just because they're old and everybody has been doing it for a such a long time – which is a faulty Appeal to Tradition.

An example of a faulty Appeal to Tradition in advertising would be an encouragement to "Drink Irish Mist, Ireland's legendary liqueur." It appeals to those old fashioned folks out there who like old fashioned traditions.

To those of you who keep sending me examples: thanks and keep it up.

Happy fishing.

Copyright October 05, 2000, all rights reserved. 30464 views

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