November 20, 2006

The Internet as a Resource for News and Information about Science

40 million Americans rely on the internet as their primary source for news and information about science.

  • When asked where they get most of their news and information about science, 20% of all Americans say they turn to the internet for most of their science news. That translates to 40 million adults.
  • This is second only to television, which is cited by 41% of Americans as the place where they get most of their science news and information.
  • Newspapers and magazines are each cited by 14% as their main sources for news and information about science.

For home broadband users, the internet and television are equally popular as sources for science news and information – and the internet leads the way for young broadband users.

Internet users with high-speed internet connections at home are equally as likely to cite the internet as TV as the media from which they get most of their science news.

  • One third (33%) of home broadband users say they get most of their science news and information from TV, while 34% say the internet.
  • Among adult home broadband users under the age of 30, the internet is the most popular source for science news and information. Some 44% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 say they get most of their science news from the internet and 32% in this group say that television is their main source for science news.

The internet is the source to which people would turn first if they need information on a specific scientific topic.

Each respondent to this survey received questions on one of three specific scientific topics: stem cell research, climate change, and origins of life on Earth. When asked what source they would use first if they needed to learn more about the topic, here is what they said:

  • 67% of those receiving questions about stem cell research said they would turn to the internet first for information on this topic; 11% said the library.
  • 59% of respondents receiving questions about climate change said they would turn to the internet first for information on this topic; 12% said the library.
  • 42% of those answering questions about the origins of life on Earth said they would turn to the internet first for information on this topic; 19% said the library, and 11% said the Bible or church.

The internet is a research tool for 87% of online users. That translates to 128 million adults.

  • 70% of internet users have used the internet to look up the meaning of a scientific concept or term.
  • 68% have gone online to look for an answer to a question about a scientific concept or theory.
  • 65% have used the internet to learn more about a science story or discovery first heard of offline.
  • 55% have used the internet to complete a science assignment for school (for either oneself or a child).
  • 52% have used the internet to check the accuracy of a scientific fact or statistic.
  • 43% have downloaded scientific data, graphs, or charts from the internet.
  • 37% have used the internet to compare different or opposing scientific theories.

This adds up to 87% of online users who have done at least one of these activities. Translated to the full adult population in America, that amounts to 128 million people who have used the internet to get some kind of scientific information.

Consumers of online science information often try to check the accuracy of scientific claims. Sometimes they use the internet for this purpose; other times they use offline sources.

  • 62% of those who get science information online use other online information to check the reliability of scientific information.
  • 54% of online science consumers use offline resources, like a journal or encyclopedia, to assess the reliability of science information.
  • 54% of online science consumers go to the original source of the information or the original study it is based upon.

Fully 80% of those who have gotten science news and information online have engaged in at least one of these “fact-checking” activities. Although a majority of those who get science information online feel the internet is a reliable source for checking on science information, fully half of those who use an online source for fact-checking also use both of the other means to look further into a science fact.

Convenience plays a large role in drawing people to the internet for science information.

When asked what comes closest to describing why they get science news and information on the internet, here is what internet users who have ever gotten such information online said:

  • 71% say they turn to the internet for science information because it is convenient.
  • 13% say they turn to the internet because they believe information there is more accurate than other sources.
  • 12% say they turn to the internet because information is available online that is not available elsewhere.

Happenstance also plays a role in users’ experience with online science resources. Two-thirds of internet users say they have come upon news and information about science when they went online for another reason.

Fully 65% of internet users say they have come across science news and information when they had gone online with another purpose in mind.

Younger internet users, those with high-speed connections, and those with a lot of online experience are more likely to have encountered science information online:

  • 70% of those with broadband at home have encountered science information when they went online for another reason.
  • 71% of those under 30 have come upon science information when they went online for another reason.
  • 74% of those who have been online for ten years or more have encountered science information when they went online for another reason.

Those who seek out science news or information on the internet are more likely than others to believe that scientific pursuits have a positive impact on society.

Among internet users who have gotten science news and information online:

  • 48% strongly agree that to be a strong society, the United States needs to be competitive in science; 33% of remaining online users strongly agree with this.
  • 43% strongly agree that scientific research is essential to improving the quality of human lives; 27% of remaining online users say this.
  • 38% strongly agree that developments in science make society better; 27% of remaining online users strongly agree with this.
  • 22% strongly agree that people need a good understanding of scientific concepts and principles to lead their daily lives; 15% of remaining online users say this.

Non-internet users were less likely to strongly agree with each of these propositions, and this is due mainly to the fact that non-internet users have lower levels of educational attainment than online users. Higher levels of education are linked to getting science news and information online as well as the likelihood that a respondent strongly agreed with the above statements. Still, even among well-educated respondents, those who used the internet to get science information were more likely to agree with the above propositions than well-educated respondents who did not use the internet for science information.

Internet users who have sought science information online are more likely to report that they have higher levels of understanding of science.

  • 81% of those who have gotten science information online say they have a good idea of what it means to study something scientifically; 60% of remaining internet users say this.
  • 78% of those who have gotten science information online describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat” informed about new scientific discoveries; 58% of remaining internet users says this.
  • 69% of those who have gotten science information online say they have a “very good” or “good” understanding of science; 49% of remaining online users say this.

To be sure, other things are associated with whether someone says he or she has a good understanding of science. A college or graduate degree – especially for those who have taken some science courses – is correlated with higher self-reported levels of interest in and knowledge of science. At the same time, interest in science is also associated with people’s sense of what they know about science. Nonetheless, getting science information online is an independent factor in this dynamic: A college-educated person who gets science information online is more likely than a similar college graduate who doesn’t get science information online to report higher levels of interest in science in the three measures listed above.

Between 40% and 50% of internet users say they get information about a specific topic using the internet or through email.

Respondents in each topic area were asked whether, at some point, they had use the internet or email for news and information about the issue at hand. Here’s what they said:

  • 38% of internet users who received questions about stem cell research said they had gotten information on the topic from the internet or through email.
  • 49% of internet users who received questions about climate change said they had gotten information through the web or via email on climate change.
  • 42% of internet users who answered questions about the origins of life said they had gotten information on the topic from the internet or through email.

Search engines are far and away the most popular source for beginning science research among users who say they would turn first to the internet to get more information about a specific topic.

Focusing only on respondents in each of the three topical modules who said the internet would be their first option if they needed to find out more about their topic, about 90% in each topic said they would use a search engine. Specifically:

  • 87% of stem cell respondents who cited the internet as their first choice for finding out more about their topic said they would use a search engine.
  • 93% of climate change respondents who cited the internet as their first choice for finding out more about their topic said they would use a search engine.
  • 91% of origin of life respondents who cited the internet as their first choice for finding out more about their topic said they would use a search engine.

Half of all internet users have been to a website which specializes in scientific content.

When asked whether they had ever gone to websites where the content is predominantly about science, half (49%) of internet users said they had been to at least one of the following sites.

  • 23% of internet users have been to NationalGeographic.com.
  • 23% have been to USGS.gov, the main website of the U.S. Geological Survey, which is the main U.S. government site for Earth-science information.
  • 19% have been to NASA.gov.
  • 14% have been to the Smithsonian Institution website.
  • 10% have been to Science.com.
  • 9% have been to Nature.com.

Fully 59% of Americans have been to some sort of science museum in the past year.

  • Nearly half (48%) of all Americans have been to a zoo or aquarium in the past year.
  • 26% have been to a natural history museum.
  • 23% have been to a science or technology museum.
  • 14% have been to a planetarium.

When looking across all of these science-oriented entities, 59% of Americans have been to at least one of them in the past year. Excluding zoos or aquariums from this count, 40% of Americans in the past year went to a natural history museum, science or technology museum, or planetarium.

Science websites and science museums may serve effectively as portals to one another.

  • Fully 79% of those who have gone to a website that specializes in science content have gone to a science museum in the past year; 59% of the general population have made such visits.
  • For the internet users who have been to a science museum in the past year, 57% have been to a science website – 8 points above the average for all internet users.

The correlation between people going to science museums and science websites was the strongest across all the sources asked about, i.e., including TV shows and magazine. In other words, there was a much stronger link between visiting a science museum and a science website than between visiting a science website and watching science television programming. This suggests that online and offline science resources may play off of each other in a distinctive way that draws at least some users more deeply to resources that promote science knowledge.

Summary of findings