Carolina Curious: What's A 'Red Herring?' Demystifying Loaded Language
In the midst of a pandemic and highly charged election season, being able to distinguish between truth and fiction is critically important. But doing so has become increasingly difficult with the explosion of digital media, and countless news platforms to choose from.
WFDD listener and retired Surry Community College educator Christina Connell says understanding an age-old method of misleading people may help.
“Could you find someone, perhaps an expert, who can present, explain, give examples of several logical fallacies?” she asks. “I believe it would be very instructive to help your listeners understand that these techniques can be used to deflect from truth.”
Simply put, logical fallacies are errors in reasoning; the ideas might be arranged correctly, but the content’s off-kilter. There are lots of different kinds: false dichotomy, equivocation, and straw man, just to name a few.
To help navigate through them, WFDD’s David Ford reached out to UNC-Greensboro Communication Studies Professor Roy Schwartzman.
On red herrings:
The easiest way to remember what the fallacy is, is to think of the literal red herring, which is a very spicy and rather odiferous fish. The only thing that you start paying attention to is that strongly smelling fish and all of your focus is on dealing with that fish, and you totally get sidetracked from enjoying your meal. And that is exactly what a red herring fallacy does. It introduces something that usually has a strong emotional reaction, positive or negative, and throws people off.
And red herrings are very common when you're talking about public health issues. For example, people will talk about something to do with a disease such as the coronavirus and risk factors. And someone will say, "Well, no, I'm not going to do any of these sorts of things despite the health evidence, despite the arguments for why we should try to avoid unnecessary contact and travel and things like that. Because my grandpappy lived to the ripe old age of 120 and he never paid attention to hygiene. And he was touching his face all the time. He was eating garbage foods. He didn't pay attention to anything they're asking us to pay attention to. And he was perfectly happy and healthy." Now, all of that is possibly quite true. But the question is, does that actually refute the medical evidence about transmission of coronavirus? And the answer is it has nothing whatsoever to do with it. But it's very vivid and very memorable. So, people start arguing about, well, something to do with your grandpappy and the 1918 flu and now all of a sudden, we're not talking about coronavirus anymore.
On post hoc fallacy:
The full name being post hoc, ergo propter hoc, which is the Latin for "after which, therefore, because of which," the idea that simply because one thing comes before another, it causes it, or if one thing comes after another, then it is the direct result of that one thing. Something like, "You know what? We quarantined everyone wearing blue shoes. And sure enough, immediately after that happened, we found that the coronavirus infection rates dramatically declined. Therefore, clearly, blue shoes are extraordinarily dangerous. And it was a brilliant strategy to concentrate on segregating people with blue shoes from the rest of the population."
It may well be true, of course, that both of those things happened, but that does not necessarily mean that one is the direct cause of the other. And you're going to run into these statements a lot, particularly with who tries to take credit for whether this gets better or worse in the short term. So, you know, if we find a spike in the infection rates, in the morbidity mortality rates, everyone is going to try to point the finger at someone or something else to blame for it — usually with minimal evidence. And if things improve, then everyone will be scrambling to say, "Well, it was because of something I did, or people on my side did." And I guarantee you will hear this coming from every corner of the political room as this thing runs its course.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.