Philosophy 96 - 5.5.4 Fallacies of Diversion

The final class of informal fallacies is the fallacy of diversion, which usually occurs in contexts where there is an opponent or an audience. In this instance, the arguer attempts to distract the attention of the audience away from the argument at hand. Clearly, the tactic of diverting attention implies that there is someone whose attention can be diverted: either an audience, an opponent, or both.


Men made of straw can easily be knocked over. Hence, a strawman occurs when an arguer presents a weaker version of the position they are arguing against to make the position easier to defeat. The arguer takes their opponent’s argument, repackages it, and defeats this new version of the argument rather than their opponent’s actual position. If the audience listening to or reading the argument is not careful, they won’t notice this move and believe that the opponent’s original position has been defeated. Usually when a strawman is created, the misrepresented position is made more extreme. Here is an example:

Senator: It is important that the path to citizenship be governed by established legal procedure. Granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants who came to this country illegally sets up a dangerous and unfair precedent. It could encourage others to illegally enter the country in hopes that they too can be granted clemency at a later date. We must only reward the status of citizenship to those who followed the laws in coming here.

Opponent: Clearly, we can reject the Senator’s position, which is obviously anti-immigrant. If he had it his way, we’d never allow any immigration into the country. We are a nation of immigrants, and disallowing people from other countries to join our nation is against everything this nation has stood for historically.

The opponent misrepresents the senator as being wholly anti-immigration and then argues against that manufactured position—a classic strawman move. The senator’s original argument focuses narrowly on the question of whether to create a pathway to citizenship for people already in the country who came here illegally. The repackaged argument is much easier to defeat than the senator’s actual argument since few people are in favor of not allowing any immigration into the country.

Red Herring

A red herring fallacy is like a strawman, except the arguer completely ignores their opponent’s position and simply changes the subject. The arguer diverts the attention of the audience to a new subject. A red herring is a smelly smoked fish that was used to train hunting dogs to track smells by dragging this fish along a path as practice. So the fallacy gets its name because it means to trick people into following a different path of reasoning than the one at hand. You may wonder how a person can get away with simply changing the subject. Successful use of the red herring usually involves shifting the subject to something tangentially related. Here is an example:

My daughter wants me to exercise more. She said she is worried about my health. She showed me research about cardiovascular fitness and its impact on quality of life for people my age and older. She suggested I start biking with her. But bicycles are expensive. And it is dangerous to ride bicycles on a busy road. Furthermore, I do not have a place to store a bicycle.

This arguer first summarizes the daughter’s position that they ought to exercise more. But then they take the suggestion of bicycling and veer off topic (getting more exercise) to the feasibility of cycling instead. The comments on bicycling in no way address the daughter’s general conclusion that the arguer needs to exercise more. Because the argument changes the subject, it is a red herring.

Table 5.3 summaries these many types of informal fallacies.

General Category Specific Type Description
Fallacies of relevance—rely on evidence that is not relevant for logically establishing a conclusion
Appeal to emotion Appeals to feelings (whether positive or negative) rather than discussing the merits of an idea or proposal
Ad hominem attack Argues against someone’s idea or suggestion by attacking the individual personally, rather than pointing out problems with the idea or suggestion
Fallacies of weak induction—rely on evidence or reasons that are too weak to firmly establish a conclusion
Hasty generalization Draws a conclusion using too little evidence to support the conclusion
Biased sample Draws a conclusion using evidence that is biased in some way
Appeal to ignorance Relies on the lack of knowledge or evidence for a thing (our ignorance of it) to draw a definite conclusion about that thing
False cause attribution A causal relation is assumed to exist between two events or things that are not causally connected; “correlation does not equal causation”
Fallacies of unwarranted assumption—rely on information or beliefs that require further justification
False dichotomy A limited number of possibilities are assumed to be the only available options
Begging the question Either assumes the truth of a conclusion in the course of trying to prove it or assumes the truth of a contentious claim
Fallacies of diversion—rely on attempts to distract the attention of the audience away from the argument at hand
Strawman Utilizes a weaker version of the position being argued against in order to make the position easier to defeat
Red Herring Ignores the opponent’s position and simply changes the subject
Table 5.3 - Types of Informal Fallacies

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax