A common example of a red herring fallacy is an appeal to pity. For instance, when a student cheats on a test, he may plead with the teacher to consider the punishment he will receive at home from his parents. The parental punishment is irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is cheating. Another example is when politicians avoid difficult subjects by mentioning other hot-button, yet irrelevant, political issues.
The name of the red herring fallacy comes from fox-hunting technique in which a dried herring, which is naturally red and has a pungent smell, is dragged across the fox trail to distract the hound dogs from the fox's scent. Thus, the red herring argument happens when one arguer attempts to distract the other arguer by presenting an irrelevant topic or argument, causing the other arguer to lose sight of the real point of the discussion.
The red herring fallacy is sometimes referred to by its Latin name, ignoratio elenchi, which means "ignorance of refutation." This ignorance could be the arguer's own ignorance to the argument's intended point or the arguer's deliberate decision to ignore it. In either situation, the arguer misses the point and complicates the discussion unnecessarily in an attempt to win the argument.
The red herring fallacy is often used in mystery novels to throw the reader off the scent of the story's true villain. The author creates suspicion around several characters to keep the reader guessing right up until the end of the story.