Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 28, 2010

Do Scientists Believe?

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 10:47 am
Tags: , , , ,


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)?

Final Thoughts

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.



  1. good day,

    Congratulations – you have hit the nail right on the head. “belief” and “disbelief” are not 0 1 – binary concepts. They re not qualitative characteristics as we may like to believe – They are quantitative with shades in between the extremes – and furthermore they are many branches – Somebody ought to compile “belief” related words for scientists from a big fat thesaurus.

    The Sanskrit Language has at least 32 seperate words with the “belief” figuring in its meaning.

    Comment by sleeping8 — September 29, 2010 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  2. I suspect that ‘belief’ is synonymous with ‘have been told’. Where as ‘thinking’ is synonymous with ‘following reasoning and logic I concluded that…’. The propblem is that the scientific knowledge of everyone comes from belief (as in I have been told) based on someone elses (experts?)reasoning and logic. If we split what we ‘know’ into what we have been told by experts and what we actually worked out for ourselves we would find that we have a LOT of beliefs and only a handful of things that we think (ie. have thought through).

    Comment by Steve — September 30, 2010 @ 7:02 am | Reply

  3. My opinion (is that a thought or a belief?) is that “believe” carries a connotation of “have been told” (as Steve said) or “came to the conclusion in the absence of established fact.” One can believe in aliens, conspiracy theories, etc. It doesn’t have to be religious, but it IS faith; someone is taking it on faith that [some idea] is true even though there is nothing to back it up.

    Unfortunately, the word is so inured in our everyday speech, it is hard to excise it. I do make some effort to avoid it (and other religious-based phrases), but it takes time and effort.

    I think; scientists think (they often hypothesize, but the general public wouldn’t really understand that, even though it’s probably better used than “belief” or even “think” in most cases); I have opinions – some of which are not based on solid fact. I occasionally trust. I can even belief or have faith in a person or an organization. That is, without supporting evidence, I may develop certain expectations of responses or actions.

    But I still don’t believe in miracles.

    Comment by Scott G — October 16, 2010 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

  4. […] year, I wrote a post entitled, “Do Scientists Believe?” where I discussed the use of the two words “believe” and “think” as they […]

    Pingback by Are Creationists Winning Some Parts of the “Culture War?” « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — June 29, 2011 @ 9:11 am | Reply

  5. […] actually written about this before on my other blog, back in 2010 in a post entitled, “Do Scientists Believe?” In it, I argued – perhaps pedantically – that we should avoid using the word […]

    Pingback by Do You Believe? | WND Watch — September 28, 2013 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

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