I was lucky enough to attend the announcement made in 2012 of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. It consisted of a hour-long talk mostly about statistics, and how the particle physics community can only claim a discovery when their data has achieved a 5σ confidence level. This represents a 1 in 3.5 million probability of the result occurring by chance. I started thinking: how much chemistry is asserted at that level of confidence? Today, I read Steve Bachrach’s post on the structure of Citrinalin B and how “use of Goodman’s DP4 method indicates a 100% probability that the structure of citrinalin B is (the structure below)”. Wow, that is even higher than the physicists. Of course, 100% has been obtained by rounding 99.7 (3σ is 99.73%) or whatever (this is one number that should never be so rounded!). But there was one aspect of this that I did want to have a confidence level for; the absolute configuration of citrinalin B. Reading the article Steve quotes, one sees this aspect is attributed to ref 5, dating from 2005. There the configuration was assigned on the basis of “comparison of the electronic circular dichroism (ECD) spectra for 1 and 2 with those of known spirooxiindole alkaloids“. However, this method can fail. Also, one finds “comparison of the vibrational circular dichroism (VCD) spectra of 1 with those of model compounds“. Nowadays, one would say that there is no need for model compounds, why not measure and compute the VCD of the actual compound? Even a determination using the Flack crystallographic method can occasionally be wrong!. Which leads to asking what typical confidence levels might be for these three techniques, and indeed whether improving instrumentation means that the confidence level gets higher with time. OK, I am going to guess these.
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