You may have heard of the term “red herring” if you have ever read a mystery story. When a mystery author wants to keep their readers guessing about who the murderer is, they may throw in clues that point to another suspect. These clues are called red herrings.
The Red Herring Fallacy is similar; rather than addressing an important issue, the speaker diverts attention from the issue by introducing information that might seem to be related, but is in fact irrelevant.
Here’s a real-world example: in the debate about green energy, some environmentally-minded people point out that the use of solar panels puts stress on the planet because solar farms often reduce the number of trees in a community, and because discarded solar panels can fill landfills. Another proponent of green energy might counter this argument with data about how the solar industry is booming and providing many people with good jobs. While this fact may be true, it doesn’t address the actual issue being discussed, which is whether solar panel usage puts more stress on the planet than it relieves.
The Red Herring Fallacy is present in software testing as well! Here are a couple of examples. A company is getting ready for an important release, and a tester finds a bug one day before the release is scheduled. The team begins discussing whether the fix should go in the next day’s release or wait for the following release, but soon the product owner and the engineering manager get in a heated discussion about how the bug was missed. While it might be important to determine how the bug was missed, it’s not relevant to the current issue, which is to decide when the bug fix should be released.
Another example is a situation where customers are complaining about a feature that an engineering team created. The team is asked to explain why their feature was released with so many bugs. The team responds with the fact that that they have a large number of automated tests that run with every release. This fact is not relevant, because the bugs went undetected. The number of automated tests is a red herring; what should be discussed instead is why the team didn’t discover the bugs.
Good software testers and teams know how to stick to the issue at hand when discussing product quality. The next time you are confronted with a problem, remember to focus on the problem and its solution rather than getting distracted by other details.