In a conversation with a couple pastors recently, we talked about the ways that we sometimes encounter logic and arguments that mislead people from the main issue.
Something unimportant is prioritized and leads the listener away from what is most important.
We see this happen in politics, religion and spousal arguments. We have an English idiom to describe this misdirection; we call it a ‘red herring’. What do we mean when we say that a particular thought or line of thinking is a red herring?
The origin of the expression is not known. Conventional wisdom has long supposed it to be the use of a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to train hounds to follow a scent, or to divert them from the correct route when hunting; however, modern linguistic research suggests that the term was probably invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, referring to one occasion on which he had supposedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare, and was never an actual practice of hunters. The phrase was later borrowed to provide a formal name for the logical fallacy and literary device.[i]
So to lead dogs down the wrong trail, something smelly is rubbed across the path to lead them away from the intended pursuit. That is quite a thing to fool a dog’s nose.
Dogs' sense of smell overpowers our own by orders of magnitude—it's 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute, scientists say. "Let's suppose they're just 10,000 times better," says James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who, with several colleagues, came up with that jaw-dropping estimate during a rigorously designed, oft-cited study. "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well."[ii]
If you can fool a dog with a red herring distraction, you can fool a man or woman with a smelly argument. Maybe in your pursuit of truth, you have been distracted by discussions and studies that lead you away from what matters most.