HOW NEARLY SPLENDID it is to learn that Washington is the second best metropolitan area in the country to live in. This information comes from a survey rating the "livability" of 277 American cities and their suburbs; Greater Washington, it tells us, is greater than anyplace else . . . except Atlanta. That is the conclusion of two men from 18th-ranked Boston, whose engaging and decidedly non-definitive opus, pegs Washington and its suburbs a narrow six points (and don't ask too much about the stipulation of said points) short of the presumably coveted Top Nirvana spot on the charts. What is this study anyway?

First, it's called the Places Rated Almanac. It is little more than a roundup of interesting statistics, largely from federal agencies, categorized into climate, cost of buying and maintaining a house, health-care facilities, crime, transportation, education, recreation, the arts, and economics. That's a fine set of socio- urban standards, we suppose, but does it really tell you about life in the big city--any city?

If a single-family home is your strongest desire, for example, the survey tells you that on a scale of least to most expensive, the Washington area is not No. 2, but No. 259. Or would you choose a hometown for its "culture," and, if so, how do you define that? Is it the sound of Mozart in a concert hall (New York wins for symphony-lovers) or the sound of a bowling ball rolling down an alley (go to Billings, Mont., where there is a building full of lanes for every 7,478 people)?

Should climate include hot air and, if so, why doesn't the almanac include Congress? Is one person's clincher the number of dog tracks in an area, neighborhood bars (Washington is No. 7 in the 10 worst metro areas for access to neighborhood bars, whatever that means) or the distance in kilohertz between classical music radio stations?

If ragweed and pollen count, forget this area; the report shows it to be one of the worst. But if you think high per-pupil spending on schools is an indicator of quality education, this area is right up there in the top 12. How about the number of potholes, pizzas, peepshows or plays? Is tranquillity a plus? And why is the number of trains more interesting than the condition of the station the passengers have to use?

Enough. The way this survey scores America, we figure Washington's a sure bet for first--just as soon as Chain Bridge opens.