Source: pp 137-138, A Concise Introduction to Logic (12 Ed, 2014) by Patrick J. Hurley

The red herring fallacy can be confused with the straw man fallacy because both have the effect of drawing the reader/listener off the track. This confusion can usually be avoided by remembering the unique ways in which they accomplish this purpose.
In the straw man, the arguer begins by distorting an opponent’s argument and concludes by knocking down the distorted argument.
In the red herring, the arguer ignores the opponent’s argument (if there is one) and subtly changes the subject.
Thus, to distinguish the two fallacies, one should attempt to determine whether the arguer has knocked down a distorted argument or simply changed the subject. Also keep in mind that straw man always involves two arguers, at least implicitly, whereas a red herring often does not.

I do not comprehend the distinction in the bolded (subordinate) clause. To me, the bolded seems only to use different words to describe the same error; ie: how can you distort an argument without changing the subject, and vice versa? What have I neglected?

5 Answers 5


"Distorting the argument" is synonymous with a strawman whereas red herring and changing the subject are synonymous. In the former, one misunderstands the argument offered and argues against something not suggested. In the latter, one distracts from the potential argument and says something else.

One problem with any examples is that both of these fallacies are informal (See this post), which means people will disagree about whether they fit or not.

I'll start with a distortion ("strawman") example:

Sample Argument A

  1. If we let terrorists into the country, then they will hurt people here.
  2. We do not want people here to get hurt.
  3. Therefore we shouldn't let terrorists into the country.

A distorted response to sample argument A is to transform it and critique the transformed version. For example:

I can't believe you said that. How can you say that muslims will hurt people here? That's absurd. We should never limit immigration.

The problem is that Argument A claim #1 does not say "muslims", it says "terrorists". If you want to prove you're not arguing a strawman by suggesting muslim immigration to your country should be limited, you're going to have to do a lot of legwork to connect the dots. (again, this is an informal fallacy so people could disagree about whether such legwork is even possible -- but it's quite evident the initial maneuver is distorting the initial claim).

A distracting response to the same argument would go something like this:

It's important to realize that terrorism has many causes -- like global warming (aside: or so argued Bernie Sanders?)

This has nothing to do (at least immediately) with whether we should let terrorists immigrate. (Again, work could be done to make it less fallacious, tying in how we have an obligation to those we harm, etc., but as written it's a completely disjointed fact designed to draw our attention).


IMO (0 philosophy experience here, just living in this world of ours...)

Changing the subject:

Husband: Did you ever have that talk with your sister?

Wife: Weren't we going to a restaurant this friday?

Probably much better replies for the wife than that, but something that leaves you talking about something completely unrelated is what I'd consider "changing the subject".

Distorting the argument:

Wife: Does this dress suit me?

Husband: hmm...I'm not sure that it suits your figure...

Wife: You think I'm FAT!?! (read the bit below before you jump to conclusions here.)

Apologies for the stereotypical problems here but, IMO that would be distorting the argument, given that it was an issue with the dress being intended for a shorter/taller/something-other-than-thinner person, and not the husband dismally failing to avoid mentioning the wifes weight.


It depends on the intent of the arguer, insofar as that can be determined.

  1. If the purpose of "distorting" the argument is
    1.1) to keep the "distortion" small so as to mislead the target into thinking the argument hasn't really been changed, and
    1.2) to knock down the "distorted" argument with subsequent argumentation, then you're talking about "distortion" for purposes of "Strawman" (fallacy).

  2. If the purpose of "distorting" is to distract the target from the original argument entirely, then you're talking about changing the subject for purposes of "Red Herring".

1 attempts to (appear to) remain "in bounds" of the original argument, where 2 attempts (deliberately) to go "out of bounds" of the original argument.

Of course, it can certainly be ambiguous/vague as to what strategy is actually being pursued, so any given argument could have elements of both fallacies. (Intentionally being ambiguous could also be called a fallacy in itself -- what I call Amphiboly, or maybe better just called "fallacy of confusion" more generally.)


The easiest way to understand/remember the difference is to look at the origin of the titles of the fallacies.

  • For the Strawman fallacy, picture yourself in a fight with a real person. Since that person is stronger than you, you create a fake person out of straw, and show everyone how easily you can knock down the fake person, as a way of making yourself look stronger than you are. Metaphorically, the real person is the real argument, and the fake person is the distorted argument you create solely for the purpose of demolishing it.

  • For the Red Herring fallacy, picture your friend being chased by a bloodhound. In order to keep him from being caught, you drag a strong smelling fish across his trail to throw the dog off the scent. Metaphorically, you're not even concerned with the real argument in this case, you're just trying to throw someone off track.


Red Herring : Type 1


Person 1 :"I think free-will is an illusion"

Person 2 :"Did you remember the plane tickets? I think we are running late, we can choose to talk about this later."

Straw-Man : Type 1

Denying originating premise

Person 1: "I think free-will is an illusion"

Person 2: "Well you choose those words so obviously not"

Red Herring : Type 2

unrelated arguement

Difference between this and the typical strawman is it does not misrepresent your own argument, it merely avoids it

Person 1 :"I think free-will is an illusion"

Person 2 : "In John Locke's theory of child development... "

Straw-Man : Type 2

This one is confusing, only subtlety different from type 1

"You think free-will is an Illusion"

"I think free-will is not an Illusion"

Please note I am not taking any stance on the free will vs. determinism debate here, only providing examples. In fact it provides another type of red harring, and so is beneficial.

If you made it this far without thinking about your stance on free will, congratulations, you avoided all the red herrings. On the subject of the straw-man you can't really avoid them, only knock them down, and return the other debater to presenting your argument accurately. It is the difference between correction and focus, being able to say "That is not what I said" --straw-man counter vs. "What you just said has no connection to the topic at hand" --red herring counter

  • I thought to clarify that I did not downvote, and wish to know the reasons for the downvote(s).
    – user8572
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 16:25
  • @LePressentiment I received the downvote on the original answer, I edited it since and I guess the original downvoter never saw the edit.
    – hellyale
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 20:02

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