Friday, November 20, 2020


Holocaust deniers love a red herring.

A red herring is a statement meant to divert our attention from evidence. For example:

All Jews weren't exterminated. So there was no Holocaust.

The Holocaust-denier's favorite, this red herring ignores the fact that victims have survived genocides throughout history.

Right now, Rudi Giuliani is peddling red herrings. He employed one in a federal court this week:

Republicans weren't present for every ballot-count.
So Trump won the election in Pennsylvania.

Rudi's red herring ignores the fact that the election results in Pennsylvania were carefully audited by state and county election workers. Republican poll watchers, although they should have, failed to visit every election-return warehouse in the state. But Republicans' laziness doesn't reverse the outcome.

The noun phrase red herring dates to the early 13th century, when, to compensate for the lack of refrigeration, fish peddlers would salt and smoke fresh herring. A red herring was smoked so long—usually 10 days—it would turn from white to red. Poor people and British sailors lived on the tangy treats; so did Catholics throughout Lent. Red herrings were—and are—known as kippers, a favorite British breakfast food.

Two centuries later, writer Gerland Langbaine noted in The Hunter that you could train your hounds to follow the game's scent by trailing a kipper on the ground.

A century after Langbaine's handbook appeared, newspaper journalist William Cobbett related a fable about a boy who used a kipper to distract a pack of hounds from their prey. Cobbett compared the hounds to sloppy journalists who chased after "false leads."

Cobbett cemented the metaphor in English speakers' minds when he wrote that a false lead is a "red herring," because "its scent goes cold" in a day.

In Nonsense, grammarian Robert Gula defines a red herring as "a detail inserted into a discussion that sidetracks the discussion." It's purely and simply a logical fallacy.

Red herrings are bull—and bad for you

And, frankly, Rudi's are giving me a haddock.

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