Contextual Relevance: Straw man, Red Herring, and Moving the Goalposts Fallacies

Contextual Relevance: 

In the context of a debate between two sides, contextual relevance is the degree to which a response or line of argument has a logical relationship to the main issue being debated.  Contextual relevance is about whether an entire argument has a logical relationship to the topic that is being debated.


Person 1:  It’s your turn to do the dishes.
Person 2:  Whatever, I took out the trash yesterday.


Straw Man Fallacy

Definition:  A restatement of an opposing view/position which is exaggerated and distorted such that it is easy to defeat.
Pro tip: Even if some people that oppose your view on an issue make genuinely bad or stupid arguments, always address the strongest possible argument against your position. If you can show that even the strongest arguments against your view fail, you’re the winner! If you fail to address the strongest arguments then you’ve won a hollow victory.


  1. Person A:  Given the tragic nature of mass shootings, we should consider implementing some sort of background check to make sure people buying guys don’t have any known major psychological problems or any records of violent criminal behavior.
    Person B:  My opponent doesn’t think people have the right to own guns.  In person A’s world, citizen’s won’t be able to lawfully defend themselves or even go hunting.
  2. Person A:  If you deny people the right to self-defense then you are risking increasing the rate home break-ins because a major deterrent will have been removed.
    Person B:  My opponent thinks we should give children AK-47s for self-protection when their parents aren’t home.  This is obviously a bad idea.
  3. (From 1:39)
  4. (From 2:20-2:49)


  1. Person A gives their position or argument–call it argument X.
  2. Person B reformulates (i.e., exaggerates and distorts) Person A’s position to make it look ridiculous/implausible.  Call it argument Y.
    Person B then shows why argument Y is a bad argument.
    The problem is that Person B hasn’t shown that person A’s actual argument (X).



Red Herring Fallacy and Moving the Goal Posts

Red Herring Definition:  When an arguer brings up an issue or line of argument that isn’t directly relevant to the original issue being debated in order to divert attention away from it.  Red herrings are often used by arguers (especially politicians) to avoid having to answer a question.

Moving the Goal Posts (aka the “Oh Yeah, What about this?” Defense) Definition:  A topic is under discussion. Person 1 shows why person 2’s argument fails.  Instead of admitting defeat, person 2 changes the standard of evidence or changes the topic to one that is closely related but not the same as the original one.  Basically, when person 1 shows why person 2’s argument fails, person 2 responds by saying “oh yeah? what about this?”

Example: Moving the Goal Posts

Person 2: Vaccines are bad because the mercury in vaccines causes autism.

Person 1:  There is no mercury in vaccines.  All vaccines except the flu vaccine have been mercury-free since 2001.  If mercury in vaccines caused autism, we’d expect the autism incident rate to have fallen since 2001 but it hasn’t.  It has increased.  So even if mercury in vaccines of the past did contain mercury, the amount that they contained wasn’t enough to cause autism.

Person 2: Oh yeah! Vaccines have formaldehyde!  And formaldehyde is bad for you.

Person 1:  Everything is bad for you if the dosage is high enough but the amount of formaldehyde in vaccines in insignificant.  There is actually more formaldehyde in a single pear than there is in a child’s vaccine schedule.  Also, our own bodies produce much more formaldehyde in a single day than we ever get in vaccines.

Person 2:  Oh yeah! etc…

Red Herring Examples


  1. Example (From the Washington Post) BLM contends that Bundy owes $1 million in fees, and will also have to pay the round-up expenses. Bundy — who retorts that he only owes $300,000 in fees — says the city folk are only hurting themselves by taking his cows. He told a reporter from the Las Vegas Review Journal that there would be 500,000 fewer hamburgers per year after his cows were towed away; “But nobody is thinking about that. Why would they? They’re all thinking about the desert tortoise. Hey, the tortoise is a fine creature. I like him. I have no problem with him. But taking another man’s cattle? It just doesn’t seem right.”

Straw man Structure:

Topic A is under discussion.
Topic B is introduced as though it is relevant to topic A.
Topic B ends up being discussed, leaving topic A unresolved.

Internal Relevance: (Aka Premise Relevance)

Explanation:  Does the premise increase the likelihood of the conclusion (or subconclusion) being true?  If yes, then the premise is relevant.  If no, then it is not.  Internal relevance is about the relationship between an argument’s premises and it’s conclusion (and subconclusions)

How to Evaluate Premise Relevance:  Assume that the premises are true, then evaluate the relationship between the premise(s) and the conclusion (and subconclusions).


A.  (a) Identify the issue of debate and express it in a statement beginning with the word “Whether….” (b) Identify whether there is a straw man or red herring. (c) Explain why it is a straw man or red herring.

1. From the just-released Government Intel Panel on Edward Snowden:

Snowden is not a whistle blower, but a disgruntled employee whose actions infringed on the privacy of thousands of government employees and contractors. A real whistleblower, the report suggests, would have remained in the U.S. and not fled to China and Russia.

2. Senator Kennedy is opposed to the military spending bill, saying that it’s too costly. Why does he always want to slash everything to the bone? He wants a pint-sized military that couldn’t fight off a crazed band of terrorists, let alone a rogue nation.

3. Lawyers from the ACLU have sued to remove the massive Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the courthouse. As usual, they are as anti-religious as ever. They want to remove every vestige of religion and faith from American life. Don’t let them do it. Don’t let them win yet another battle in their war to secularize the whole country.

4. The legislators should vote for the three-strikes-and-you’re-out crime control measure. I’m telling you, crime is a terrible thing when it happens to you. It causes death, pain, and fear. And I wouldn’t want to wish these things on anyone.

5. Son: “Wow, Dad, it’s really hard to make a living on my salary.” Father: “Consider yourself lucky, son. Why, when I was your age, I only made $40 a week.”

6. Student: “The opinions of the students are completely ignored in the process of determining both curricular changes and social programs. The students should have a much greater voice in campus governance, because we have a very great stake in this institution, and we think that we have a positive contribution to make.” Professor: “The faculty are the ones who need a greater voice. Professors can be fired without explanation, and they have no control over who is promoted or given tenure. Their opinions about budgetary allotments are completely ignored. Why aren’t you concerned about the injustice the faculty is experiencing?”

7.Daughter: “I’m so hurt that Todd broke up with me, Mom.” Mother: “Just think of all the starving children in Africa, honey. Your problems will seem pretty insignificant then.”

8. straw_man3


9. Person 1: I’m a feminist because I believe women should be afforded the same opportunities as men. That will probably mean not as many men will be getting the top paying jobs since women will have the same opportunities for those positions.

Person 2: Why do you think women should get preferential treatment? That’s just not fair.

B. Make memes.

Most memes are straw men–especially if they are political memes. Go to Link ( and make or find two straw man memes.