Friday, 17 July 2009

A red herring argument about herring: Littlejohn goes meta!

After seeing a couple of examples this week, I want to mention the red herring fallacy. Specifically I'm referring to the technique whereby you try and discredit something by picking out some tiny, seemingly absurd facet of it and ignoring anything vaguely serious that may be connected to it. It may not surprise you to learn that both recent examples come from the mack daddy of the misleading argument, Richard Littlejohn, (the latter of which amusingly is actually about herring).

On Tuesday, Littlejohn directed his rage at those mincing liberal poofters who oppose torture with this little throwaway piece of smugness:

The Not In My Name crowd are so desperate to convict British soldiers of torture they'll clutch at any straw, from fake photos to uncorroborated testimony from hardened terrorists.

At the latest inquiry, which opened this week, it was even claimed that Iraqi prisoners were forced at gunpoint to dance like Michael Jackson. Now that's what I call torture.
Aside from the fact there's no evidence that the people giving testimony were 'hardened terrorists', what Littlejohn's actually discussing here is a single sentence floating around in relation to the inquiry into the death of Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa in Army custody. Now, according to the BBC, Mousa "suffered asphyxiation and at least 93 injuries to his body, including fractured ribs and a broken nose". The stories from these two articles are numerous. Many of the claims may be false, some may be true. But the accusations include that "soldiers had competed to see who could kick them [detainees] the furthest", to use just one example.

Here's how the Guardian (link above) frames the apparently freakin' hilarious Michael Jackson claim:

Some claimed they were urinated on and forced to lie face down over a hole in the ground filled with excrement. Others said their hands were burned with scalding water, or their heads were flushed in a toilet. Elias said: "One man says he was made to dance in the style of Michael Jackson."
To me, that sounds pretty bad, but I guess if you're Richard Littlejohn you just read through all the pissing and burning and covering in shit and start giggling at the incongruous Jacko reference. Fair enough if that's your reaction, I'm not the sense of humour police (not yet anyway), but I do think it takes a special kind of cunt to wave away all the claims that would constitute genuine torture, completely fail to refer to the fact that a man died, and then portray the whole thing as if it were just a jolly good British prank and that these Iraqi ponces ought to man up. The trial is not about making people dance in an amusing way, Littlejohn. Nor is it about the anti-war protesters you irrelevantly bring in. It's about trying to find out whether a man was beaten to death by the Army. Oh, my aching sides.

Today's example is a tad more boring, but equally disngenuous. Demonstrating his total lack of self-awareness by including the very logical fallacy he's committing in his sub-heading ("Smells like a red herring"), Littlejohn gets a whole eight paragraphs of awful 'imagine that' comedy out of a passing mention by a judge of an apparently ludicrous law:

He [the Lord Chief Justice] drew attention to one law creating a new offence of using a non-approved technique for weighing herring. How many methods can there be for weighing herring? And why just herring? Why not cod, pollack or salmon?
My life is sufficiently boring that I bothered to actually research this claim. In doing so, I found a Mail article (duh) which claimed this law is part of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. It isn't. After loads of Google-powered research via a clue in an Independent article, I found myself confronted with the erection-inducing excitement that is the The Sea Fishing (Enforcement of Community Quota and Third Country Fishing Measures) (Scotland) Order 2007. The relevant paragraphs of this are here.

To cut an already far too long story short, what this bit of law actually states is that if an inspector asks questions about how you weigh your fish, you should provide him with information. The purpose of this is to stop fishermen from rigging their weighing scales to give inaccurate readings and thus sneakily break quota limits. It essentially says that you may have to co-operate with an inspector if they decide to check you're not pulling a fast one. Now, that seems to me fairly reasonable, in fact I'd go so far as to see it's a necessary element of having a weight-based fishing quota law. But because it mentions herring and because a judge who's clearly pulled his example from the papers thinks it's just a bit of pointless nit-picking, it's suddenly deemed absurd.

What I'd like to see from journalists really is a bit of skepticism. In the torture example, Littlejohn's clearly just being a dick and knows full well what the trial is about. But in the second one he's using what looks like a third-hand, glib account of a law to dismiss it on the rounds of apparent absurdity. A good rule of thumb would be this; if a claim seems fanciful or absurd, it may be that you've not understood it properly. Why not go and check it? Sadly, that last question is rhetorical. I know why Littlejohn doesn't check things, it's because his column relies on pretending that everyone in any form of power has completely lost touch with reality, and the cheap laughs that he can get out of it from readers who uncritically lap up his shaggy dog stories.


  1. That first example is frightening. No doubt his readers will blindly ignore anyone who tries to point it out though.

  2. Excellent expose of the red herring technique, I'll keep 'em peeled for that kind of shite more often.