The Two-Star Paradox

Oct 10, 2022 | Philosophy

Sometimes, as I try to sleep, intrusive thoughts prevent me from relaxing. They may even hold my attention for hours on end, preventing me from getting any rest.

Sometimes, those thoughts creep into the daylight hours, bothering me as I’m attempting some other task.

This can’t be healthy.

But, honestly, this is also the time I do some of my best thinking. And it isn’t unheard of for writers to come up with the idea that solves all the problems with their current project as they’re lying in bed. Some of us have to keep notepads next to our bed for this very purpose.

Yet not every idea is a solution. And when a question has no obvious answer, that is pure torture.

Let me give you an example.

A Modern-Day Koan

It’s everywhere. There’s no escaping it.

And it’s not the kind of thing I can just talk about with people. Any time I try, they look at me like I’m that meme of Charlie Day with the loaded bulletin board.

Yeah, that’s the one.

It’s like a mystery, except we know the answer. But that answer doesn’t make any sense. So it’s more like a conspiracy theory, except there is no conspiracy. There’s no explaining it, no escaping it, and no way, in a million years, of making peace with it. It needs to be destroyed. Or understood. Or just…just…forced to make sense.

I have to do this. I want to sleep again!

But I know that’s not helpful. I’m sorry. I’m trying to say it in a way you’ll understand. Perhaps it would be easier if we start at the beginning.

The problem is this: stars can exist in any quantity—any quantity except for the number 2.

The Missing Number

On the internet, you can buy anything.

And, almost always, you can then rate the thing you have bought. This allows you to make a statement about a product’s quality to anyone in the world. And that rating is always determined by a quantity of stars.

You can choose one star.

You can choose three stars.

Or four.

Or more.

But you cannot choose two stars. It simply isn’t done. You may be capable of that choice, but doing so is meaningless. It’s like throwing your vote away. Voting two stars does not convey to the next customer that the product has two stars of value, because “two stars of value” is undefined.

And you can see this when perusing any online store. Look at the star ratings. Notice how, for most products, there will be some 5-star reviews and some 1-star reviews. 3-star and 4-star reviews are not uncommon, either.

But you know which review level is always the lowest, and often has zero votes across most inventory?

That’s right: the two-star review. People can’t bring themselves to select it. And it’s obvious why.

The Other Stars Have Meanings

It doesn’t matter what you’re buying—books, lawnmowers, lingerie—the star ratings work the same across all products. Everyone knows what five stars means. It means “Excellent”, “Perfect”, “Exceeded my expectations and filled all my needs”.

Likewise, everyone knows what four stars means. It means “Good”, “Above Average”, “Satisfactory”, and “Job well done.”

Three stars means “Average”, “Passable”, “Functional yet unremarkable”.

And one star means “Horrid”, “Bad”, “A waste of money”, “An inferior product”.

All these star levels have meanings. Only one is left out—the one that means nothing.

When a product fails, it fails completely. Two stars does not mean “only works sometimes”. No, that observation is meant for a one-star review.

Likewise, two stars does not mean “I hated it only a little”. That observation is too close to indifference, so it naturally gets folded into the three-star level.

What would a product have to do to earn a two-star rating? Put another way, if you were trying to design a product with the goal of earning a two-star rating, how would you go about doing that?

With only a little effort, you could come up with products that satisfy any of the other star levels. But you can’t design a two-star product. It is beyond your capacity.

That is the two-star paradox. It is impossible for a customer to honestly give a two-star rating, yet the two-star rating is forced to exist by the existence of the other star levels. If you were to eliminate the two-star rating, the other star levels would become more imprecise, and thus lose a little of their meaning.

Two stars is where all the meaninglessness of customer ratings gets concentrated. It is the black hole of ideas.

Why Is This a Problem?

It’s a problem because customer ratings only work because they are a quantized representation of customer satisfaction. They must necessarily run the gamut of satisfaction levels, growing in merit from one to five in a graduated way. That is the very definition of the star rating system—the sole source of its value proposition.

Yet the two-star paradox contradicts and disproves that idea. Yet yet the star rating system still works. Yet yet yet removing the one worthless part of the star rating system makes the rest of the system less meritorious.

You see how there is no solution? No explanation is both complete and internally consistent. It’s Godel’s theorem all over again!

The two-star rating must be kept as a possibility because it is impossible. It is there to be the thing everyone says “no” to, to remain forever unembraced.

And we’re all supposed to just…accept that.

Because what else can we do other than accept it?

Walking Away from It All

We now understand the problem. And, in that same moment, we understand that we will never understand how to fix it.

The only winning move is not to play.

We are forced to walk away.

And if we sleep, we sleep under the shadow of the unknowable, the ineffable. We leave a stone unturned, a door unopened. We choose to be happy animals rather than thinking men.

What an wicked fate.

Sweet dreams.

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