Red Herring

Red_Herring_LargeA Red Herring is a distraction used to avoid or derail an argument, often designed to appear logical. It is also the term for a misleading direction in a story.

Lets say we’re having a discussion about how worthwhile it is to be vegetarian. You say it’s better for the environment, and healthier for you, and doesn’t involve the unethical treatment of animals. Then I say that any distinction between living things is sticky and thus eating any living is equally unethical, additionally ethics are subjective.

If I said this, I would have used a red herring. My argument has nothing to do with how worthwhile it is to be vegetarian. My argument is simply a lame diversionary tactic.


Sam – “Charlie, why did you steal that banana?”

Charlie – “Stealing is an artificial construct. Everything on the earth belongs to everyone, you just don’t see it.”


The origin story goes; While training hunting dogs, hunters would drag a red stinky smoked fish  across the scent trail to distract the dogs eventually training them to follow the original scent and ignore competing stronger scents.

As it turns out,  references to this practice are red herrings in the other scents er… sense. It turns out , it was a story of distracting hunting dogs that was used only as a device  to describe a  distracting (and false) report of Napoleon’s defeat in 1807. Hunters did no such thing.

Quinion, Michael (2002–2008). “The Lure of the Red Herring”.World Wide Words.(http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/herring.htm)


The Conjunction Fallacy

The_Conjunction_Fallacy_LargeWhich is more probable?

A: You decide to move to Greenland tomorrow.

or B: Tomorrow, you receive a phone call from an old friend who is in the same line of work you are in and he is currently living in Greenland working on an amazing project and needs your help and offers you a sweet job! Like the once in a lifetime job opportunity you simply cannot pass up, pays great, tons of vacation time, very rewarding, all that stuff. Later that evening after giving it some serious thought and talking it over with your surprisingly supportive friends and loved ones you decide that you are going to take the job and move there.

If you said B, you’d have fallen for The Conjunction Fallacy.

The Conjunction Fallacy occurs when someone assumes a more specific set of things is more probable than a more broad set of things. 

Probably the most famous example of this fallacy is from Tversky and Kahneman.

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

(Number 1 obviously, but I’m really rooting for number 2!)

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. 1982. “Judgments of and by Representativeness”, Pp 84-98 in Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., and Tversky, A., eds. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press.



The Hot Hand Fallacy

The_Hot_Hand_Fallacy_LargeThe Hot Hand Fallacy is the assumption that wins or losses in games of chance exist in streaks.

While gambling, some people will feel they are having an ‘cold night’ or that ‘someone is really on tonight’, assuming luck exists as an etherial vein you can tap into as opposed to a series of independent events.

Humans are excellent at seeing patterns in what is really just noise. This is known as the ‘clustering illusion.’ Randomness is clumpy er clustery.

In basketball it is a common belief that when a player makes a basket, they will be more likely to make another basket, and another and another. This is untrue. Each basket a player makes is a statistically distinct event and thus has no effect on future baskets. Sports = arbitrary :)

This fallacy is the cousin of the ‘Gambler’s Fallacy’ which also preys on peoples misunderstanding of statistical independence.




The Masked Man Fallacy

The_Masked_Man_Fallacy_LargeThe Masked Man Fallacy is when an intensional statement is confused with an extensional statement, and a false conclusion is reached.

Intensional – Something that MUST be true about something.

Extensional – Something that IS POSSIBLE to be true about something.

I know, super confusing, a total brain melter. I apologize. Here is a  soothing example.



The kid with the baseball cap ‘s name is Sammy.

The homeowner thinks the kid with the baseball cap egged his house last night.

Therefore, the homeowner thinks Sammy egged his house last night.

In the conclusion ‘kid with the baseball cap’ was substituted with ‘Sammy’, this is wrong because in these statements the homeowner doesn’t necessarily (intentionally) know the kid’s name. So he thinks nothing of Sammy, only the sweet revenge he’s planning for that little turd in the baseball cap.