TO THOSE who insist that we pay unquestioning homage to "American exceptionalism," here's an example to add to your list:

Americans pay more, by far, in health care than any of the other richest countries in the world, but live shorter and sicker lives than the people in the world's 16 other richest countries, including Western Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia. Among these countries, American men have the shortest life expectancy. American women's life expectancy is second to last.

A study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released last week revealed that a big factor in the difference in life expectancy can be attributed to the high number of deaths before 50.

Quite exceptional, don't you think?

And some of the response to the report is just as exceptional - compared to what other countries that received such news might do. What should be heard as a loud and clear wake-up call has been met - at least by some conservative politicians and media with unwillingness to accept inconvenient scientific evidence that has infected our body politic for decades - with outrage.

"Shorter Lives, Poorer Health" is the title of the study that looked at an exhaustive range of statistics and identified an unmistakable "U.S. health disadvantage" that extends not only to minorities and the poor but also to educated white Americans.

According to the study, the United States has a higher infant mortality rate than those other countries, more teenage pregnancy, more sexually transmitted disease and HIV/AIDS, more chronic lung disease and more obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Americans die at far-higher rates from drug addiction, car accidents and - not surprisingly - guns. Gun homicides are 20 times more numerous here than in any of the other countries studied.

"Something fundamental is going wrong," Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the study, told the New York Times. "Something at the core is causing the U.S. to slip behind these other high-income countries. And it's getting worse."

The research panel suggested several possible reasons: our fragmented health-care system, in which so many millions of people are uninsured; our poor social safety net; and high caloric intake. The panel raised the question of whether cultural factors like distrust of government policy and "individualism" might contribute to this core problem: Americans are less likely to wear seat belts in cars or helmets while riding motorcycles. And then there are the guns.

The panel's findings outraged some conservatives because we're supposed to have the greatest health-care system in the world and, well, "freedom" to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

But perhaps nothing is more critical than the unwillingness of many Americans to look closely at these problems. This kind of report ought to be the equivalent of what happened after the Soviet Union in 1957 launched Sputnik, prompting the Space Race by giving us the power to focus our attention on the science and the political will to compete with Moscow. In this case, however, it's a life-or-death issue.