An Intellectual Code of Conduct, Part 2

An Intellectual Code of Conduct, Part 2

Wild goose chase, rabbit trail, red herring—all these idioms refer to diversionary tactics. A mystery writer might use a red herring character to distract readers (and even the detective) from the real culprit. A good plot device for authors, but in logic, using a red herring is a fallacy.

Continuing this series on applying the Golden Rule to intellectual arguments, I present a second rule for ensuring civil discourse in all areas of debate.

Rule #2: Stay On Topic When Offering a Legitimate Rebuttal

The red herring fallacy is closely associated with the straw man error (part 1). An arguer commits the red herring mistake, whether on purpose or accidentally, by diverting attention from the real issue at hand and focusing on extraneous or secondary matters. As with the straw man fallacy, a change in subject (even if subtle) results in a loss of logical relevance on an unproductive side trail.

Diversionary tactics such as the red herring violate the “appropriate response” principle—a critic’s responsibility to focus any critique or rebuttal on the real question at hand. We can avoid the red herring fallacy and remind ourselves and our opponent of the debate’s authentic core by asking questions, such as:

  • “Remind me, again, of your argument’s central point.”
  • “How does your current point relate to the overarching issue?”
  • “Can you help me understand the specific support for your conclusion?”

These types of questions can help everyone refocus their thinking and can return the discussion to the original issue.

Check back next week for a third intellectual code of conduct.