Distinguishing Between Inert Information, Activated Ignorance, and Activated Knowledge
The mind can take in information in three distinctive ways: 1) by internalizing inert information; 2) by forming activated ignorance; and 3) by achieving activated knowledge.
By inert information, we mean taking into the mind information that, though memorized, we do not understand - despite the fact that we think we do. For example, many people have taken in, during their schooling, a lot of information about democracy that leads them to believe they understand the concept. Often, a good part of the information they have internalized consists of empty verbal rituals. For example, many children learn in school that "democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people." This catchy phrase often sticks in their mind. It leads them to think they understand what it means, though most of them do not translate it into any practical criteria for assessing the extent to which democracy does or does not exist in any given country. Most people, to be explicit, could not intelligibly answer any of the following questions:
Thus, people often do not sufficiently think about information they memorized in school to transform it into something truly meaningful in their mind. Much human information is, in the mind of the humans who possess it, merely empty words (inert or dead in the mind). Critical thinkers try to clear the mind of inert information by recognizing it as such and transforming it, through analysis, into something meaningful.
By activated ignorance, we mean taking into the mind, and actively using, information that is false, though we mistakenly think it to be true. The philosopher Rene Descartes came to confidently believe that animals have no actual feelings, but are simply robotic machines. Based on this activated ignorance, he performed painful experiments on animals and interpreted their cries of pain as mere noises.
Some people believe, through activated ignorance, that they understand things, events, people, and situations that they do not. They act upon their false ideas, illusions, and misconceptions, often leading to needless waste, pain, and suffering. Sometimes activated ignorance is the basis for massive actions involving millions of people (think of the consequences of the Nazi idea that Germans were the master race and Jews an inferior race). Sometimes it is an individual misconception that is acted on only by one person in a limited number of settings. Wherever activated ignorance exists, it is dangerous.
It is essential, therefore, that we question our beliefs, especially when acting upon them has significant potential implications for the harm, injury, or suffering of others. It is reasonable to suppose that everyone has some beliefs that are, in fact, a form of activated ignorance. Eliminating as many such beliefs as we can is a responsibility we all have. Consider automobile drivers who are confident they can drive safely while they are intoxicated. Consider the belief that smoking does not have any significant negative health effects.
It is not always easy to identify what is and is not activated ignorance. The concept of activated ignorance is important regardless of whether we determine information we come across is false or misleading. What we need to keep in mind are clear-cut cases of activated ignorance so we have a clear idea of it, and personal vigilance with respect to the information we come across that is potentially false. Most people who have acted harmfully as a result of their activated ignorance have probably not realized that they hurt others. Ignorance treated as the truth is no trivial matter.
By activated knowledge, we mean taking into the mind, and actively using, information that is not only true but that, when insightfully understood, leads us by implication to more and more knowledge.
Scientists have activated knowledge of the scientific method. They use this method (of hypothesis, prediction, controlled experiment, observation, and provisional conclusions) to acquire more and more knowledge. The method is powerful, enforces discipline on human thinking, and provides safeguards against misuse.
The basic principles of mathematics represented activated knowledge about numbers, shapes, space, and motion that enable the careful thinker to develop precise conclusions based on precise information.
The basic principles of critical thinking represent activated knowledge of the parts of thinking, standards by which thinking can be assessed, and ways in which thinking can be improved. These principles can be applied again and again with the consequence that we discover further knowledge on the basis of our present knowledge and disciplined thought about new information.