This is an interesting question, and one really of diction and intent. It’s one that I’ve personally had to catch myself on several times, and I try to be very careful about distinguishing between the two words “believe” and “think.” In our everyday lives, I don’t think most people actually pay attention to it, and the two terms have almost decayed to mean something other than their original intent.
What Does it Mean to “Believe?”
According to the dictionary widget on my Mac, the first definition of “think” is: “accept (something) as true; feel sure of the truth of.” The first two examples are, “The superintendent believe Lancaster’s story,” and “Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead.”
To me, however, I think the second example is the only one that really captures the real, perhaps original, meaning of the word, “believe.” I use the term to indicate when I accept something without any real evidence.
But, the term is often used today to describe when someone wants to placate another person by “softening” their stance. I’ll get to that later.
What Does it Mean to “Think?”
Again going to my trusty easy dictionary, “think” means “have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something,” or “direct one’s mind toward someone or something, use one’s mind to actively form connected ideas.”
In this case, it’s the second half of the second definition that I think captures the real meaning, and the real difference between these two as they should be used in language. If you use the first definition then it is actually nearly the same as the definition of “believe,” where “belief” is even in the definition.
Use of “Belief” when “Think” Should Be Used
I’ve been working on a paper lately about age-dating the last major volcanic events on Mars. In the process of peer review, you have to defend your paper to one or more reviewers because they are the ones you have to convince of your results so it can be accepted in t he journal.
You also have justify your conclusions within the paper for the broader audience who is not going to contact you personally to get clarification. When doing this, the difference between “think” and “believe” will hopefully become more important:
When I write my conclusions, I have them backed up by the data presented in the paper. Should I say, then, that I “believe” them? Or would it be more accurate to say I “trust” them and “think” they are accurate?
But then when a reviewer disagrees with me and points out, for example, that I should cite a paper that I don’t think I should, it sounds nicer if I say, “I don’t believe that would benefit the paper” versus “I don’t think that will benefit the paper.” “Believe” sounds, as I mentioned above, softer and more like.
For another example, I sat in the theater today at Meteor Crater (outside of Flagstaff, AZ, USA). The purpose of the 10-minute show was to talk about the importance of impact events in shaping the solar system and Earth. I had only two major issues with it, but then I heard the line, “Most scientists believe a giant asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs.”
There’s that word “believe” again. It makes it sound as though scientists take this on faith. And maybe if they were raised in a different school, they would believe something else. Should the word “believe” be used in this instance when roughly 98% of scientists who study this subject THINK the impact killed the dinosaurs (as in have examined the evidence and have come to a conclusion based on that evidence)?
You may think – or believe – that I am really splitting hairs here, writing about minutia. You may think or believe that the difference doesn’t matter.
However, I think it does. When a reporter states that “scientists believe [something],” it makes it sound as though they sat down in the lotus position, meditated for an hour, and then came to their conclusion via divine providence. In my opinion, using the word “believe” to describe a conclusion reached by examination of evidence is bad thinking.