What does it mean to believe something?

We believe the world is round and that God does or doesn't exist (or that we can't know). We believe our friends when we ask them questions, and we believe that our bed is wherever we left it at home. We even believed Tennessee could hold its own against Alabama last Saturday.

At first glance, beliefs may seem like only positive things, but that's false. Strongly (and falsely) held beliefs cause terrible things. Parents don't vaccinate their children for fear of autism. Religion, racism and other ideologies have motivated centuries of slaughter. Our government shut down for a few weeks due to differing beliefs about what is good for this country.

How does this happen? We believe plums are purple, but no one ever kills each other over something like that. Rather, if someone says, "All plums are green!" you can just find a plum together and look at it. Maybe the person was thinking of grapes, or unripe plums. Regardless, you'd call them crazy if they still said all plums are green when holding a purple plum.

The broadness of our beliefs complicates things, especially in political matters. But first, take these questions, and think hard about how you come up with the answer: do you believe that you have a liver? Do you believe parents should spank their kids?

Let's start with spanking. If you believe in spanking, how would you respond to the Canadian study showing that physical punishment erodes the IQ of children? If you don't believe it, what about the study from Calvin College that shows children spanked up to age 6 tend to be better students and workers?

This shows a very important tendency that humans have — we like to be told we're right. Let's say we're conservative, and someone posts a cartoon making fun of Obamacare on Facebook. What we're likely to do is laugh, like and move on. A liberal on the other hand, may get angry, look up evidence to back up their claim and post a long, over-serious response. I know – I've done it.

Examine the liver question. If your doctor says "You have a liver!" you probably won't get weirded out and challenge her. If she said you don't have a liver though, you'd probably find a new doctor. You would refute her claim, confirm you do, indeed, have a liver and tell her she's a quack.

This phenomenon is known as the "backfire effect," and was coined by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. They found that, "When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger."

I want to believe we can all argue peacefully, use the facts and find answers that are true and best for everyone. These columns aim to start conversations in the place historically renowned as a breeding ground for new ideas and social improvement — college.

But when we won't listen to the facts, how do we reach any consensus on reacting to climate change? How do we treat those in our population who are in desperate need of healthcare, jobs or community? How do we do the right thing to promote job growth and a better standard of living for all Americans?

The reason we don't like considering others' arguments against our own is because we're afraid we might be wrong and humiliated. Sadly, I do it too — write someone off as ignorant because I don't agree with them. I'm scared I'll lose.

But if our beliefs about these things are so strong we refuse to respond to evidence, rejecting science and facts because they don't align with our beliefs, we all lose. We will not have compromise, consensus or a country without strong hatred for one another.

If college should teach us anything, it would be how to learn. Learning requires listening to opposition, and every major improvement in the world has disagreed with everything that came before it. Remember when everyone believed the earth was the center of the universe?

We could all rethink the role of our beliefs. Should they be something we genuinely want to be correct, or should we just want to be right?

We already know the answer – hopefully we'll learn to accept it.

Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached at eford6@utk.edu.