Life & Logic: Part 2 – Avoiding the Question

It just bugs me when officials in an interview on something important dodge the question with their answer.* In a time when facts and the truth are not always completely obvious, what do we do to stay sane and alert? Who has time to research everything to find accurate information? That may be why more and more voters vanish on election days from pure exhaustion. So let’s stay in it, and take steps to fight for logic in our political discourse!

*Note: I do understand when leaders are unable to comment due to ethical, legal, or sensitivity limitations. Sometimes we are legitimately not entitled to all the information in the moment. I accept that.

As we continue the series on strengthening our logic skills to recognize and respond to faulty logic, we equip ourselves to better understand facts, truth, and how they relate in reasonable ways. Today’s post looks at ways people avoid a question. These may not be new to you, but I find them interesting. It encourages me to be a careful and savvy listener when it comes to debate on important issues in our society.

Red Herring Fallacy

Saying things that sound like they answer the question, but they don’t. Saying things that are true, at least partially, but they do not answer the actual question. We’ve heard this happen in conversations and interviews. At times it is masterful how some people introduce something unrelated in a way that is hard to detect. Anytime this happens, that is one way of avoiding the question. This is called a red herring.

I recently read that a red herring is called that because it starts to smell like a dead fish. In the book, The Fallacy Detective, the authors tell how dog trainers would create a scent trail of whatever they wanted a dog to follow, say a racoon. Then the trail would become old. That is when the trainers would drag a smelly, old red herring across the trail and off in another direction to throw the dog off the original trail. They work with the dog to stay on the original trail and not get distracted. As defined in the book, here’s how this goes:

  1. A red herring, or irrelevant point, is introduced into an argument or in answer to a question.
  2. The speaker thinks or hopes that listeners will think this proves the point being made, and answers the question.
  3. But it does not.
  4. However, if someone responds simply with saying they do not know the answer, that is not a red herring. It is not irrelevant and is still on topic.

How to Recognize Red Herrings

Responses are often true, yet irrelevant. They can be good arguments, but just do not address the point of the question being asked.

So, to recognize a red herring, follow these steps:

  1. What is the question being asked or argued about?
  2. Did the person address that issue or question and stay on topic?
  3. Is the response true, but off topic?

These critical thinking tools help us determine a red herring and know how to respectfully listen, but not get sidetracked.

Special Pleading Fallacy

Special pleading is a variation of the red herring approach that uses a double standard or an exception that is not justified. These techniques sidestep the issue.

Example: I know I shouldn’t overeat, but I am very hungry.

Special pleading often brings in something that gives an unfair advantage. There are times when an exception to a standard or rule or law is unfair. When we hear those comments that seem unfair, it may be a red herring, distracting from the bigger issue or question.

How to Recognize Special Pleading

To call out a special pleading comment, step back and ask yourself or the person speaking, if you are in the conversation:

  1. Why is this exception relevant?
  2. Is this distracting us from the issue?

Ad Hominem Attack

I think these are easy to recognize because I get a pit in my stomach when listening. If you’ve ever watched a political debate in recent years, you’ve seen this in action. Ad hominem attacks are when one participant attacks the character and/or motives of the other to get us to doubt them and see them as bad or as the enemy. This is done effectively, yet unfairly, at times, if it gets us off the topic at hand. We listen to the participants drag each other through the mud instead of defending their position on an issue being debated.

Ad hominem is Latin for “to the man.”

We must go on alert when someone’s character or motives are attacked, instead of disproving an argument.  In that situation, someone is side stepping the question.

Next time, in the Life & Logic Series: Genetic fallacy, tu quoque, and faulty appeal to authority. What? Exactly why I’m reviewing these techniques that miscommunicate. I hope this is helpful.

Stay charming and logical, my friends!

Note: This is part of a blog series on a logical thinking to strengthen skills as we filter information in coming elections. Being an involved, informed voter is strategic and becoming more vital. Plus, logic exercises the brain. That is a great benefit. I am studying faulty logic, using a book, The Fallacy Detective, by Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn. You can learn more at Let’s work toward more wisdom as citizens and voters together. Our democracy is strong. Let’s keep it that way together.