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The traditional belief is that the name "red herring" had to do with training hounds to follow a scent during a fox hunt. The contemporary believe is that it was a literary device invented in 1807 by an Englishman and really had nothing to do with hunting.

Regardless, the red herring argument is also called a smoke screen and a wild goose chase. Based on those names, you likely know its purpose is to divert attention from the real argument by providing a clue that misleads the target.

Here are a few examples:

We should make academic requirements stricter for students because we are in a budget crisis and do not want funding reduced.

Notice, the second part of the sentence has nothing to do with the first. The budget crisis is a red herring because it sends the listener's attention away from the issue of stricter academic requirements.

This one is a real life example:

Question: "Which Iraqi opposition groups favor the intense bombings likely to be conducted by the Americans?"

Response: "The Iraqi opposition groups want the removal of Saddam Hussein...the fact is Saddam Hussein has carried out the wholesale slaughter of large numbers of his people..."

Notice, the response does not answer the question and instead distracts the argument with the more general topic of Hussein's regime.

The greatest problem with the red herring, like other logical fallacies we have studied is that it takes attention away from the argument and refocuses it onto something that is usually damaging to the opponent or the opposing argument.