One of my favorite TV series is Monk. One episode was known as Mr. Monk and the Red Herring. In this episode, Detective Monk dealt with a case that seemed to revolve around a fish until, lo and behold, it turns out it wasn’t really about the fish. I will say no more in case someone wants to watch it, but the title itself had given me a clue that this would be an episode focused on a distraction, which is exactly what a red herring fallacy is.
The Red Herring was so named because when dogs were trained for hunting, they were trained to follow one scent. During the training, the trainers would drag a pungent fish across the trail of the dog. The goal was to make sure the dog stayed on the original track and to refrain from following the distraction. In logic, a Red Herring is an argument that distracts one from the focus of the main argument. Fortunately, we all know today through discussions on Facebook and other web sites that this never ever happens. Everyone always stays on focus.
In politics, this happened during the administration of George W. Bush at times when Vice President Cheney would speak out on issues of morality. People would point out that Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian. Now even though I do think homosexual behavior is a sin, that had nothing whatsoever to do with Cheney’s point. In fact, he could have condemned homosexuality and still been consistent. He could have affirmed it and remained consistent. In any case, what we must do is check the argument. Of course, some might make the charge of bias, but bias does not change the argument itself. Arguments don’t have bias. Arguers do.
In any event, the attempt was to get people talking about Cheney’s daughter instead of talking about the issue at hand. This often happens in political discussion when hosts or guests of programs are led astray, thinking they have to answer every question that is thrown at them.
Most evangelical Christians today believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as do I, but there are times that this doctrine can be a red herring. Suppose you’re talking to someone about the resurrection of Jesus and they say “The Bible has loads of contradictions in it.” If you go down the path of dealing with the contradictions, you will spend the rest of the time answering contradictions instead of talking about Jesus' resurrection.
A better response is to be willing to grant a contradiction for the sake of argument, and instead argue for the Bible being a document simply claiming to tell what happened to Jesus and go from there. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona have done this in their book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.” That way, you keep focused on the main point of conversation. Of course, there is a time to discuss Bible contradictions, but let it not be a distraction from another topic.
Whenever you are confronted with a new trail to follow, pause and ask yourself “Is winning this battle absolutely essential to my position?” If the answer is no, then it's likely that it's not a battle worth fighting. Your opponent might just be trying to distract you due to pressure from your current line of reasoning. Don’t let them get away with it.