Straw Man vs. Red Herring vs. Missing the Point

Sandra LaFave

Many students have difficulty distinguishing between the Straw Man fallacy and Missing the Point or the Red Herring. I put together these notes with examples to try and help out.  


Straw Man Fallacy


The straw man fallacy features oversimplification, exaggeration, distortion, or ridicule of someone’s argument in order to make the argument easier to attack, i.e., violating the principle of charity. 



“Professor Parker argues that we should implement sex education classes for kids starting in the sixth grade.  Apparently what the professor wants is for kids to start having sex at age 9 or 10.  This is just crazy!  Clearly the professor’s arguments are misguided.”


Red Herring


In the red herring, the arguer begins with a claim that needs support.  You expect the arguer is going to offer support for that claim, but that doesn’t happen.  Instead, the original claim is just lost. It’s left behind: the arguer jumps on board another train of thought on another topic, and rides it at some length (usually several sentences). THEN the arguer just stops, as if to say “I’ve proved it now.”  Sometimes the arguer actually states that his original claim has, after the digression, been proved.


In the red herring, there is no distortion of original topic – the original argument is just lost. 



“People think college education is too expensive these days.  But the problem is that many of today’s college students have no business being in college.  They learned practically no math or English in their previous twelve years in school, and massive amounts of remedial work are needed just to bring them up to freshman level work.  What we need to do is improve the quality of our grade school and high schools. I think I’ve made my point.”



Missing the Point


Missing the point consists of drawing a conclusion that (1) simply doesn’t follow AND (2) no other fallacy captures the error more precisely.  In missing the point, there is no distortion or exaggeration (that would be the straw man). There is also no lengthy segue into an entirely new subject (that would be a red herring).


Note “Missing the Point” is the fallacy name we apply only when no other fallacy captures the error more precisely.  In other words, DO NOT USE “missing the point” as a diagnosis of a fallacy unless no narrower (more precise) diagnosis exists. 



“People often say that coeducation is distracting for students.  But that can’t be so.  Study after study has shown that boys and girls have equal intelligence.”




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