What is a gadfly? Why is this so important to me?

What is a gadfly? That is probably your first thought when you visited this website.


A gadfly is a person that thinks about issues in considerable depth, that asks uncomfortable questions, and a person that upsets the current status quo with their novel questions. I choose the concept of a gadfly because I have observed before that there are questions that need to be asked, that people sometimes don’t like to think about.


The concept was born originally from Socrates and written about by Plato. Socrates once noted that censorship is more dangerous to the society that opted to censor because of the dangers that questions left unanswered could be. A gadfly asks questions that people who would rather not have to consider the possible answers for. They do not, because they fear the implications of the answers if they were ever found out. Throughout history, there have been intellectuals, thinkers, and idealists that have been censored or in extreme cases, killed even for their ideas. Socrates lost his life. The details are  quite a bit more complex than that of course, but Socrates’ death sentence was heavily influenced by his unconventional ideas.


The other reason why I like the concept of a gadfly is that censorship simply does not work. A gadfly draws attention to such matters. As an individual or as a leading authority in society, you can fool yourself into hiding the problems, but when it becomes so obvious to everyone, it is unmistakable. That is especially true for authoritarian regimes that resort to censorship and in many cases, use the heavy handed approach to do it. The Soviet Union may be the most well known example, but there have been many other examples. On a daily basis, we might encounter that as well. Certainly not to the extremes encountered in the USSR, but with the people we interact with, with the organizations we deal with, and with our society as a whole. I have always believed that we should draw attention to the problems so that we can best decide as a society how to solve them. To do that, we have to always ask questions.


Let me ask you a question. What do you fear the most from our society? I would argue that the most dangerous possible outcome for society is that we do not think, that we grow complacent, and that we blindly obey someone that will lead us to disaster. Such a society would never learn from its previous mistakes, lose the ability for any self-correction, and fall prey to people who may say the things that people want to hear, but who do not have the best interests of society at heart. Initially that may seem absurd, or perhaps something that only happens in authoritarian regimes, but I think it is a very real danger in our contemporary society. It is an ideology that discourages knowledge, rationalism, inquiry, curiosity, and substitute it for something else – likely their ideology. I fear this above all else.


People when they are presented with such thoughts think immediately about “what’s in it for me?” This is one of the drivers of my fears – a certain built in complacency unless there is something of immediate benefit, people often oppose resources, whether it be time, energy, money, or anything else, into seeking knowledge. One of the most distressing things I have seen is that people sometimes oppose scientific research or potentially promising capital investments as a “waste”. Actually, in the long run, by asking questions, by conducting research, and by finding new answers, there is the potential for considerable benefit for everyone. Questions lead us to consider problems that we might not have otherwise put a lot of effort and thought into. They can lead to solutions that we never knew existed and potentially, in the long run, a great deal of benefit for everyone.


Stepping outside of philosophy, politics, and history, you might ask, what benefit is this professionally? I would argue of immense use, and especially in the professional world. It is not just something purely for academia or as a hobby. A gadfly is a thinker, a person who looks for unconventional ideas, who looks for the problems that other people did not anticipate, and who looks for their own novel ways to solve those problems. That can lead to a person which is more observant, which in turn can lead to them acting as a sort of bridge between concepts that other people may have overlooked or left unspoken. That can lead to new ways of doing things, ideas for making existing processes better, or perhaps to solve unique problems.


Whenever I encounter something unknown, I have this burning need to find an answer. I do not like to leave questions unanswered. To me, one of the most important things to do is to always ask the question, “why”, and to find the root cause of the matter. The matter could be a problem or it could be a good thing. The important thing though is to ask the question “why”?.


The other consideration is that if we are heading towards a knowledge-based economy, then the ability to think, to question, and to come up with new ideas will be the make or break in any organization. An organization’s success will depend on its ability to attract people will that type of mentality and encourage curiosity from its existing staff.


Finally, when something unexpected does happen, a gadfly is far more likely to propose some sort of novel solution or think about a problem in deeper depth than anyone else. That can lead to better outcomes.


I hope that this post encourages you to consider becoming a gadfly.


  1. Benjamin David Steele

    I’m generally open to being a gadfly. Not that I want to draw too much attention to myself. But I do have a bad habit of asking uncomfortable questions and pointing to inconvenient data. I often end up doubting my own views or otherwise feeling wary about conclusions, including those I prefer.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to romanticize too much the role of the gadfly. One person’s gadfly is another’s cynic, malcontent, or demagogue. Just as one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. It’s all about perspective. Intentions are important, but almost everyone claims good intentions.

    Many of Trump’s supporters consider him a gadfly. Many right-wing hate-mongers and fear-mongers like to portray themselves as gadflies. They see their denialism, political incorrectness, and general assholishness as proof of their individual courage standing up to experts and authorities.

    The actual people challenging the destructive and dysfunctional status quo get misrepresented as defending the status quo. That is what happens in the climate change debate. Too many people believe all opinions are equal, no matter how ignorant, that any criticism defeats any scientific claim, no matter how misinformed.

    It is hard trying to be a gadfly in a scientifically illiterate society. The same goes for historical illiteracy, such as with the Texas textbook wars.

    This is a major stumbling block for our society. Democracy has a way of promoting a kind of anti-intellectual populism. It’s the dark side of a society that hasn’t yet fully come to terms with what freedom means, not just for oneself and one’s group but for everyone.

    1. Chris Liu (Post author)

      It is inevitable that a gadfly will draw attention to themselves. Actually, I think that a gadfly is more likely to be introverted than extroverted, but that’s just me. The nature of the questions they ask, the ideas they generate, and their opinions will inevitably draw some attention, whether wanted or not.

      I would not consider Trump to be a gadfly. A gadfly should promote thought, curiosity, and new ideas, which is not what Trump is doing. He is promoting his political agenda for nothing but his own personal political gains. I would not see him as so much of a gadfly as much as a political opportunist and a narcissist. Perhaps one that has a very deep psychological understanding of his base, and the people who support him, but a man that is power hungry above all else and for his own reasons rather than to serve society as a whole. He appeals to their fears not because he wants to do good, but because he wants to use them to gain power. A gadfly, although human and therefore imperfect has the best intentions at heart.

      Yes, it is difficult to be a gadfly in any society. I think that perhaps what makes a society successful is its ability to collectively open its mind to new ideas, dissenting opinion, and self-correction of mistakes. That is going to be true anywhere really. I think though that a more open society will of course do better in this regard.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *